Philip Treacy is an eccentric magpie, but his job allows it. As one of the world’s most acclaimed milliners, the designer draws from wild and wonderful references – alien landings and military regalia to exotic natural creatures – and crafts them into couture gold. Over more than twenty years, Treacy has worked with everyone from Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli to Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, his legendary friend, mentor and muse.
At the time of this interview (2019), it’s the middle of summer; so his team are currently on holiday and his prestigious archive has been packed away in storage. All that remains are shelves upon shelves of wooden hat blocks, used to achieve the overblown silhouettes of his most spectacular, imaginative and recognisable works. Never shy of inspiration, his office teems with treasures: there’s the pencil-sketched swirl of a black masterpiece from his own FW98 collection as well as the jaw-dropping butterfly hat made for McQueen’s SS08 collection, La Dame Bleue, a collaborative tribute to Blow following her death in 2007. But what sets his work apart is the emotional connection he creates with every piece. By using couture techniques and talking at length to his clients about their lives, experiences and desires, Treacy has mastered the art of creating timeless pieces to be treasured, a far cry from today’s increasingly disposable world of fast fashion. It’s this passion that keeps his business thriving. After all, “We will always have heads.”
Jake Hall: Let’s start at the beginning – were you always creative as a child?
Philip Treacy: I always liked to work with my hands. The actual physicality of making something from nothing is exciting, and that’s what it’s about at the end of the day. It’s therapeutic. There’s just something about creation that’s so fascinating: you start with this two-dimensional material, then it becomes three-dimensional, and suddenly you have this result. My process hasn’t changed in that sense I suppose, but your eye does become more trained to detail, to design.
JH: How do you set about deciding what to design, do you ever have any restrictions?
PT: Not really, you just kind of go with it as opposed to really planning anything. I’m just a designer making hats in London, and people buy them and come to my store. For me it’s not some marketing fantasy, this happens because I’m fulfilling a desire. Fashion is more and more designed with commerce in mind these days – there’s a lot of fashion. It’s a very competitive, saturated market, and ultimately people are just tired of being sold clothes. So I’m selling an idea.
JH: Were you career-driven when you started out? What was your entry into fashion like?
PT: I never thought of this as a career, I just kept going really. I studied Fashion Design in Dublin, won a scholarship to go to the Royal College of Art and then met Isabella Blow pretty early on. When I finished college I moved into her house and started making hats in her basement. I had backing from a mass manufacturer in Luton, but there was no plan and no customers in those days. I would make the hats and she would wear them. Isabella would leave for the night, come back and say that she’d had a great time at Annabelle’s (meaning the hat!) and tell me what people had said about it. She was this very fearless person, and this was pre-Gaga, muchos pre-Gaga! People actually got a bit annoyed when they would see her, like “Who the fuck does she think she is?!”
JH: What impact did that have on you?
PT: Well she didn’t see it like that, she was just entertaining herself really. Now if people dress quite fashion-y and kooky – well, not kooky, she went for elegant – then people are open to it, but 25 years ago there was a grandeur, an hauteur to how people dressed. Isabella could stand in front of you wearing a dress that was clearly busted with a massive safety pin holding it together, but you could see she just didn’t care. That punk-ish element was missing back then.
JH: I imagine that made your creation process a lot easier, working with someone so free and open?
PT: Of course – our common language was the hat. She was flying the flag in a moment where people weren’t really wearing them, but now they are and it’s fantastic, she’d be thrilled. I think they have a place in culture because no matter how you look at it, we will always have heads [laughs]. Humans have been decorating them since the beginning of time, and in 100 years I think people will have devices clipped to their heads. They’ll be quite chic. Maybe they will be able to tell the temperature or control our heart rates, who knows?
“Isabella [Blow] could stand in front of you wearing a dress that was clearly busted with a massive safety pin holding it together, but you could see she just didn’t care.”
JH: Did you ever face resistance for championing hats when the overall fashion mood was more subdued?
PT: I didn’t face resistance, it’s just – I thought of hats, and I envisioned what a head could look like. In that sense, Isabella was my partner in crime. She saw the romanticism of hats in the same way as I did.
JH: From the wooden ship to the lobster, Isabella has worn some of your most iconic hats – was the process collaborative, or did you more or less have free rein?
PT: She did not interfere with the hats, she thought it was tacky to tell the designer what to do. But she did suggest. Really though, she thought it naff to tell either me or Alexander McQueen what to make or how to make it. That’s a common mistake; inspiring somebody and then giving them the freedom to do what they want is everything. If you give someone a project and then control exactly how they do it, it’s just not as interesting.
JH: You speak about romanticism, fantasy – was that what drew you to fashion?
PT: I suppose it was just completely alien to what I knew; it was otherworldly. It still is, don’t you think? Fashion images are so potent, because they capture things you wouldn’t imagine. It’s a dream, it’s a fantasy; it’s perfection. We’re attracted to nature because it’s the ultimate perfection, so everyone else is in pursuit of that perfection. Yet nothing is ever perfect. It’s that constant drive to develop that keeps you going; if you worked it all out, you’d never do it again.
JH: Today’s generation of designers definitely looks back and romanticises early 90s London as a kind of golden age. There really seemed to be this spirit of pure, unfiltered creativity – is that fair to say?
PT: Isabella was at the centre of it – she was the ringleader, she was mama! She was out there blowing the trumpet for me, for McQueen, for Stella Tennant, for Iris Palmer, and she used a telephone like a weapon. It was fun. She was an insider who became an outsider… and then became an insider. That’s the nature of fashion: it’s up, down and all around. So every hat that I worked on with her was fun, because you ended up doing something you didn’t necessarily always want to do. She could be very persuasive over the phone at 7am [laughs].
“Humans have been decorating [their heads] since the beginning of time, and in 100 years I think people will have devices clipped to their heads. They’ll be quite chic.”
“The future is all around us, you just don’t see it. Every time I see a motorcyclist go by in one of those amazing helmets, I think, “The future is here!”
JH: You worked on some of McQueen’s biggest shows, including his Givenchy couture collections – Naomi Campbell’s ram headpiece, for example. How do you even go about working on a show of that magnitude?
PT: I did it all with [stylist] Katy England – she was the mood-board. We would go through all of my shapes and decide what we liked, so that guided me a little. She really trusted me to come up with something great, and so did Alexander. Because of how talented he was, I always tried really hard. He was extra. But he was worth the effort; his idea of a brief was something you’ve never seen before, which of course was never easy, but we like that kind of a challenge. He was interested in originality, and so am I – it’s what it’s all about.
JH: Was that freedom what made those partnerships so great?
PT: I think there was just a lot of talent. It transcended everyone else’s in that moment, because he was so prolific, so on-the-button. I really realised that when I saw his (FW95) Highland Rape show. We were actually housemates for a while; we always used to fight about the electricity bill. He was on the dole, so he was just in the basement cutting, making and producing the clothes himself – and beautifully, too. He was like a wild character in a blood-red kitchen, very Francis Bacon.
JH: Press reactions to that show in particular were extreme, especially given the contentious title and the misunderstanding of the story being about England’s ‘rape’ of Scotland. You were there, what was it like to experience that?
PT: The press were just very mumsy about it. There was a lot of tut-tutting, and that was boring because it was so brilliant – they just didn’t realise how brilliant it was when they were looking at it. Honestly, I had never seen anything like it before, even outside of fashion. These girls came down the runway like mad women, like they would kill you at the end of it. They were so tough, but they were wearing these amazing outfits and we had never seen anything like it before – it was an energy, and McQueen had that with whatever he did. Isabella encouraged him like she did with me, and it helped us both enormously. We were her boys, she was Ma Baker. She loved whenever someone in her brood committed a crime against fashion, and not everyone could do what she did. She found Stella Tennant in art school, next she was in British Vogue and then the next week she’s doing a Versace ad campaign with Linda Evangelista.
JH: Your careers all accelerated so quickly, and with such impact – how did you deal with that pressure?
PT: Really, I just did what I wanted. With McQueen, he wouldn’t see the hats until about an hour before the show when we arrived in Paris. We got used to not wanting to wait outside stadiums for eight hours for the show to start, so that was how it always went. Basically if he didn’t like it at that point, I was fucked! More generally though, I just do what I do with intention. Millinery is a creative experience, and I’m lucky to have it because it’s a strange old world out there. It’s amazing that a hat designer can survive in the 21st century, it’s a rarified existence, and it’s difficult, complex work because it’s ultimately a craft. We’re craftspeople working in fashion, and we have to come up with the goods. Talking about it, bullshitting or suggesting we read deep, heavy messages into our work is boring – what you make is judged by the customer.
JH: So you never work with a grand concept in mind?
PT: No, no, no. Well, I always work with concepts but I also just love to work with thin air. I don’t know what I’m doing with it, I just do it. It’s like the black swirl hat: it’s a drawing. I like a blank page with a pencil, I just get going and then later choose what attracts me, which is generally the new. There’s no point making an old hat. I just want to take it as far as I can, because it’s all about envisioning how you can use the head to occupy a hat. [Philip pulls out a sketchbook and starts leafing through his recent drawings]
You see, it’s more subconscious – I could follow these sketches exactly, but I don’t really. I might decide to take the mood of something and then develop on that, but it changes all the time and I find myself liking things that I didn’t before. After all, fashion is about change, it’s what keeps it alive.
JH: Is there an archetypal Philip Treacy customer?
PT: No, our clients range from 18 to 80 – it’s the most unusual customer base in the world, and it really could rival any couture house in Paris because we have everyone from entertainers to royalty. Everyone is interesting in my eyes – and everyone we work with is looking for something special. Obviously customers vary; the difference between Lady Gaga and Camilla Parker-Bowles is vast, but they both love hats.
JH: Where do you envision yourself going creatively? You mentioned wearable tech earlier…
PT: It’s not so much that I’m interested in that aspect, although I’m sure I’ll build it into my work someday. What I mean is that the head is unexplored territory, and in the future it might be super-explored. Hats could cool us down, transmit a thought process or even an idea… Who knows? The future is all around us, you just don’t see it. Every time I see a motorcyclist go by in one of those amazing helmets, I think, “The future is here!”
“Obviously customers vary; the difference between Lady Gaga and Camilla Parker-Bowles is vast, but they both love hats.”
JH: Some of your most famous looks are in this feature and one was the SS13 bejewelled mask. How did that come about?
PT: Well the collection came about because I met a model called Grace Bol in Paris. I was just like “Who are you?! ” So she says, “I’m Grace,” and I gulped and thought, “Oh, not another one.” But I was so inspired by her; I wanted to make a show about her and other African girls like her. In the meantime I was making hats but couldn’t find clothes. Then a friend of mine offered me Michael Jacksons’ wardrobe that they were auctioning in LA, and I thought, “Yes, I’d love that.” To me, they both represent black excellence, so it all worked. As for the jewelled mask, for me it was like incognito but for superstars – I loved that.
JH: It’s also impossible not to mention [Alexander McQueen’s SS08 collection] La Dame Bleue – how did you both go about creating a tribute to one of your best friends?
PT: Alexander actually called me to say he’d seen a clairvoyant and made contact with Isabella, who had said she wanted to be known as La Dame Bleue, so that’s where the name came from. It’s fascinating because she said a few other things that indicated it was definitely her. It was all his process and his idea, but initially he was going to approach it differently – and then he decided to just do what he wanted rather than try to create ‘Isabella Blow’ looks, because that’s what she always wanted anyway. They adored each other, although everyone would like to tell you otherwise.
JH: Do you try to stay away from that kind of ‘tell-all’ press coverage of your friends?
PT: I haven’t read those books, to be honest with you. People keep sending them to me, but they keep disappearing. It’s like somebody doesn’t want me to read the… Oh, actually it’s behind me. It’s strange when you’ve lived it and know these people – Alexander and Isabella have become like the Marilyn Monroe and Elvis of fashion, these tragic people. But there’s nothing tragic about them. They were tough. Of course they were sweet and vulnerable too, but they were the least tragic people I’ve ever met. What happened to them was, but really they were the opposite of that. It’s weird though, isn’t it? I did an interview with a journalist from a very established newspaper a few years ago, and the question that threw me was: how does it feel to be the odd one out? It was a reference to me not committing suicide… So there you go. That’s just how journalism is.
JH: That’s so disrespectful… do those questions tend to come from journalists who maybe don’t work exclusively in the fashion industry, who might write fashion off as superficial?
PT: The fashion-haters? Yes. There are superficial people in fashion, of course, but it’s a very hard-working industry that keeps a lot of people going. Fashion is more calculated now, because to succeed you have to either be rich or have backing. It’s very expensive to do this, so the industry can become elitist, but there will always be designers who come along and change that.
“Alexander actually called me to say he’d seen a clairvoyant and made contact with Isabella, who had said she wanted to be known as La Dame Bleue…”
JH: You touched on being a craftsperson in fashion. Especially as the industry continues to speed up, is that a difficult position to be in?
PT: It’s not so difficult, really. Actually, craft is really desirable because there’s an honesty to it; craftspeople are taking the time to make something with their hands, with intention and effort. That’s the difference between the machine of the future, at least unless they work that part out. Engineers can’t replicate the human approach, the creativity, the intimacy of developing something for somebody. A machine can’t replicate that thought process yet, so there’s a humanity to craft which is wonderful.
JH: Clients often want hats for special occasions, so there’s a sense of really collaborating with them and forging an emotional connection through your work. Is that where your craft will really live on?
PT: I create that emotional connection through the object, really. What we do is couture, and that’s the new luxury – our customers aren’t shopping on the high street because they want a more intimate, personal experience. We do have our shop on Elizabeth Street, which is kind of a destination store – like our bakery, really. We’re always cooking, so whatever we make goes there. My biggest joy is really that people like it; they’re buying, investing and treasuring my work, and my business is successful so I’m having the time of my life. I just want to keep going, and I want my clients to look and feel amazing. That’s the whole point of fashion, right?
Feature originally published in HEROINE 11.
Model LORNA FORAN at THE HIVE MANAGEMENT; hair NAO KAWAKAMI at THE WALL GROUP; make-up NEIL YOUNG at THE WALL GROUP; casting REBECCA KNOX; photography assistants PHIL HEWITT, SEB MCCLUSKEY and FILIP HANNING; fashion assistant AURELIE MASON PEREZ retouching IWONDERU STUDIOS; digital tech MAX ROVENKO