From princesses to pop stars, English milliner Piers Atkinson is making hats happen. Based in his East London home-cum-studio, every nook and cranny of which is filled with feathers, straw berets, veils, crystals and tulle, Atkinson has been crafting hats since before he can remember. His mother, who is also a successful milliner, used to make costume hats for the English National Opera on their kitchen table. Atkinson would sit at her feet and fashion miniature versions of the theatric toppers from discarded scraps and trimmings.
The milliner has come a long way since playing on his mum’s floor. After studying fine art, assisting conceptual artist Andrew Logan and being taken under the wing of London’s quirky, pink-haired design icon, Zandra Rhodes, Atkinson launched his eponymous line of hats in 2008. In 2009, his hats were featured in the V&A’s "Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones" (the exhibition is traveling to New York and will be on view at Bards Graduate school from September 14th through April 15th). The hyper-real red cherry hat from his "Sex on the Brain" collection which, available this August at Patricia Fields, was worn by Rihanna in her "S&M" video, helped to put his quaint studio on the map. And since, Atkinson has gone on to create hats out of the most unexpected materials—hair rollers, dismembered Barbie Dolls and neon lights—for the likes of Kelis, Princess Beatrice, Anna Dello Russo and, Lady Gaga.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Witty. There’s a lot of humor in what we’re doing. I think if you’re going to put a hat on your head, you either want to keep the rain off or feel fabulous. And a hat is a show off garment. It’s like a fabulous pair of high heels or something.
How did those famed cherries come about?
I did a collection called “Sex on the Brain,” because I love that phrase. My mum told me that, in the Victorian period, men would have beautiful paintings of nudes on the silk linings of their hats. And that’s sex on the brain, literally. So I mixed that idea with 80's Athena posters of hummingbirds drinking off glossy lips and girls licking chocolate-dipped cherries and strawberries. That’s where all the fruit pieces came from. And then we just did those incredible cherries. They were meant to be the silly showpiece that would be good for press and no one would buy. But I’ve sold hundreds of them! It changed my opinion of how fabulous women are.
What do your hats say about the women who wear them?
I think very importantly it says that they’re glamorous. But more importantly, it shows that they’re intelligent. These hats are not cute, look-at-me-things. They’re real statements—witty, confident pieces. And the girls who wear them are intelligent, strong-minded women.
Why do you think hats are making a comeback?
There’s a lot more dress up in pop culture. You’ve got Lady Gaga, she’s the most outrageous, but then you’ve got great people like Rihanna and Kelis who are wearing all these amazing costumes and hats. And people are following that. Then in fashion too, that 90's little black dress is not what you’re going to see Anna Dello Russo in. These people are celebrating and enjoying showing off. And they’re enjoying promoting that more extreme vision of the designer. And it’s a known quantity that people show off more during a recession, so skirts might get longer and prints get brighter and why not cheer up with a cherry hat?
What can we expect to see from you next season?
Fall was all navy and neon lights. That collection was about the nightclubs and people making their fantasies come to life at night because the real world’s a bit boring. I wanted to continue that for spring, and I’m moving that concept into the theatre. It’s a bit more fun. Since last season was dark, I want to put every color into this collection. I’ve been looking at a lot of musicals, and that evolved into Gone with the Wind and a bit of Street Car Named Desire. It’s definitely going to be a little New Orleans, with some voodoo and parrot feathers and straw boaters and things like that... and Zandra Rhodes is giving us one of her amazing prints.
What’s it like designing hats for Gaga? And Princesses Beatrice and Eugine?
Well you get scared, don’t you? Lady Gaga is such an extraordinary creature, and I always wonder what she’s going to be next week… because she’s a candy cute girl one day and then a biker chick the next and then some extraordinary art concept creature the next. So you have to think, does she want a baseball cap or a leather mask? But the piece she wore most was with the black, floral mask inspired by Schiaparelli.
Do you think that English women understand something about eccentricity that American women don’t?
Well, yes. I think there’s an eccentric thing in the UK. But you’ve got a lot of amazing hat wearers in America. Michelle Harper is a great supporter as is Susanne Bartsch. These are incredibly, mind-blowingly glamorous women who look like a million dollars. So I think Americans wear hats brilliantly.
What’s next for you?
Meeting some great labels to discuss doing hats for fashion week. And someone mentioned Michelle Obama, so maybe I should try to do a hat for her. She’s so great in all those bright colors. So maybe I should try and sort out a meeting with her. And then, I’d love to make something for the Duchess of Cambridge, of course.
What’s the key to pulling off one of your toppers?
Hold your head up high and just march forward. If the rest of the world doesn’t get it then, you know, screw them!
Photos: Piers: Amy Gwatkins. All others: Getty Images