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Philip Treacy: The World's Most In-Demand Hat Designer

It’s that time of year when hats and headpieces are king – whether it’s a fascinator for a wedding or a hat for Ascot, there’s one name that is always synonymous with this type of accessory: Philip Treacy

“Everybody loves things that sparkle,” Philip Treacy once said, and it’s with this in mind that I look at the glittering career and influence of the hat designer – not milliner as he’s made clear in the past – in the fashion and art worlds, and his home, Belgravia.

He could be described as the world’s most in-demand hat designer – his creations have adorned the heads of Lady Gaga (most notably the telephone-shaped headpiece with removable headset) and the Duchess of Cambridge to name just a couple. But, of course, Philip had to start somewhere and he started with an impressive education in fashion design.

Born in Ahascragh, County Galway in Ireland, Philip moved to Dublin in the ’80s where he studied fashion at the National College of Art and Design and made his first piece from an old straw hat which he found in a junk shop and took apart using steam from a kettle – his tutor subsequently bought it from him and wore it to an exhibition in London.

He then headed to London where he won a place on an MA fashion design course at the Royal College of Art. Graduating with a first class honours in 1990, Philip took one of his creations to the then Tatler art director, Michael Roberts and his style editor, the late Isabella Blow, who leant a hand in launching Philip’s career.

Isabella was notorious for her ability to spot talent, and Alexander McQueen was among her protégés – with whom Philip collaborated in 1999 when working on a haute-couture collection for Givenchy, which included the famous ram’s horns hat.

Isabella had originally approached Philip to make a hat for her wedding and she went on to invite him to move in with her and her second husband Detmar, in Elizabeth Street, Belgravia. In 1990 he moved into their basement, where he lived and worked on his designs.

When he opened his first official studio just a few doors away from Isabella at number 69 in 1994, he described the space as a “little gold box with our window to the world”, which provided a place to showcase his dramatic and soon-to-be world-famous designs.

Philip has identified 1993 as the year that heralded a new attitude towards headpieces and millinery after showcasing his first annual catwalk show at London Fashion Week that year. Gone were the days of a hat being a functional item to either keep you warm or to appear smart; now it was all about fashion, art and craft.

In 2003, Isabella commented on this change:

“In the old days, people were frightened by my hats (the ones Philip had made). But in the last year, or maybe two, Philip has single-handedly broken through the barriers.”

His style is definitely signature – from a lobster to a swarm of butterflies to a Campbell’s Soup can, Philip’s designs are unquestionably surreal but always have a sense of mischief and a playful attitude. Using luxurious and often exotic materials from all over the world, a Philip Treacy hat is not for the subtle-minded, and each piece he creates has a certain drama.

You know a Philip Treacy when you see one, and I think that’s what makes his work so spectacular – from a hat featuring a chinoiserie landscape made from cork, to horsehair helmets, there’s nothing else quite like them. Although his designs may not strike you as everyday wear, he also creates ready-to-wear items, including his latest S/S16 range, which features slightly more pared-back pieces, but still with the Philip Treacy boldness everyone knows and loves.

Philip’s reputation in both the local area and the fashion world will continue to thrive as a true visionary. He’s worked with some of the other great minds of fashion culture such as Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Valentino and Ralph Lauren and also singer Grace Jones – he was the designer and art director of her Hurricane tour in 2009.

Books have also been written in Philip’s honour, including one in 2013, Philip Treacy, which celebrated the craft behind his art and was released by close friend and photographer Kevin Davies. The book illustrates the creativity in Philip’s studio with an archive of images depicting his entire working life. Philip Treacy shows his love of making fantasies a reality in this behind-the-scenes book, snipping feathers and fitting hats while celebrities and personalities are strewn over sofas, chatting away and sharing jokes. It’s a truly glamorous picture of the scene Philip has inhabited.

His work for the Royal Family has also not gone unnoticed; in 2007 he was awarded an honorary OBE for services to the British fashion industry by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at Clarence House. Camilla was wearing one of Philip’s designs seen at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, including the much-spoken-about hat worn by Princess Beatrice, which, in my opinion, is a wonderful creation.

With Philip Treacy designs, nothing is impossible and we’re thrilled to have him as a central part of the cultural make-up of this very special part of London. I doff my hat to you, Philip.

Intruiged? Find out more from the man himself.

69 Elizabeth Street, SW1W 9PJ, 020 7730 3992, www.philiptreacy.co.uk