Designer creates hats for the 21st century

Sarah-Grace Sweeney

Laura Del Villaggio made her first vintage purchase at the age of 8. It was a piece of 1950s luggage from a garage sale. Her mother asked if she was planning to run away, but Villaggio was simply beginning a life-long love affair of all things vintage. By age 12, vintage hats had especially captured her attention.

Villaggio is a milliner, or a hat maker. Hats sold on the racks of department stores are cranked out by impersonal machines at lightning speed. But Villaggio takes the time to measure customers’ heads, determine how wide the brim of a hat should be based on how broad their shoulders are or what type of hat would look best with their face shape.

“I think it’s a classic look and a feminine look,” said Catherine Nicole, jewelry designer and a Villaggio’s customer. “But I wasn’t wearing hats too much until I met Laura. I had just never seen such artistry in them.”

The actual process of millinery has not changed much in centuries, Villaggio said. It remains a painstaking process in which she can spend some 20 hours fitting, shaping and stitching the hat together. While millinery was never her life plan, “it’s what stuck,” she said.

“Hats, I think, are a really great extension of your personality. Not everybody will be in a hat,” Villaggio said. “I love the way you can use it to transform your personality, depending on who you want to be.”

Villaggio studied history and apparel design at UT and Colorado State and graduated from UT in 1996. She knew she wanted a more focused degree and traveled to New York City to study Museum Studies of Costume and Textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She discovered that FIT offered a millinery certificate program and knew it was something she had to pursue.

“Having worn and collected hats for many a year and listening to stories of my great-grandmother who had made some hats for herself in the ’20s, I asked for permission to take the millinery program as well,” Villaggio said. “Sometimes, I would be busy writing papers and making hats, five papers and 10 hats in about 10 days. It was a very busy time, but I loved every minute of it.”

Villaggio now owns Milli Starr, custom millinery company and makes vintage-inspired hats or headpieces for weddings, European travels or everyday wear.

“I’ve lost track at this point of how many hats of mine have been sent out into the world,” Villaggio said. “I do a lot of custom work. Some people want a casual everyday hat, but more than likely, they are going to do something special. I do lots of hats that travel to be worn at weddings in Europe. So a lot of my pieces have been worn on someone’s special day.”

The craft of millinery is something that Villaggio knows is a rare skill today. There are only 41 milliners registered with the national Milliners Guild. But she’s teaching local classes and even hires interns, like Baylor student Kaylyn Smith, to learn the art of hat making.

“She basically knows everything there is to know about millinery and fashion in general. She can tell you where each feather came from, who first used it,” Smith said.

But hats are evolving just like the rest of fashion, Villaggio said, referring to designer Philip Treacy, who designed many of the hats and headpieces worn at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

“There is a really interesting thing going on right now that I find very inspiring. It’s sort of pushing the boundary of what a hat can be. You can almost combine the idea of masks or a headdress or even hair dressing to the idea [of millinery],” Villaggio said. “I feel very lucky to be a part of that, whatever millinery is going to be in the 21st century.”

While the U.S. has not been a leader among nations of hat-wearers, Villaggio has seen business pick up recently. Women who have worn hats for a long time, and some who are just becoming aware of the trend come to her for a Milli Starr design. Villaggio said it takes a special person to wear a hat but that everyone is capable of being a “hat person.”

“Berets and fascinators are really great introductions to hat wearing,” Villaggio said. “Most of the time, someone will get so many compliments when they are out wearing that piece, they will come back for more. It takes confidence to wear a hat, but it’s a confidence booster as well.”

Villaggio thinks the hat trend will continue to push boundaries, and she will continue growing Milli Starr and looking for her designs on heads around town and even at New York Fashion Week in February.

Printed on Monday, November 28, 2011: Hats off to a rising style trend