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Hats and Barcelona: a Great Pairing and One with a Future

12 July, 2013

Cristina de Prada

We are talking with the renowned hat designers Nina Pawlowsky and Cristina de Prada, the people behind the Stroll With a Hat in Barcelona event, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year.

Love what you do and have a vocation for self-learning: these are two essential conditions for forging a career as a milliner or hatter, both labels that Cristina de Prada and Nina Pawlowsky identify with when talking about the trade they have spent years learning and developing.

We meet the designers a few days after the 9th Stroll with a Hat has taken place in the Catalan capital. This is the city’s leading event devoted to hats, caps and headwear, which has grown from attracting just over a hundred people in the early years to more than 1,000 this time around.

We start the conversation by discussing the challenges ahead for both the profession and the event the two women have created.

With regard to the first, the consensus is immediate: “It’s important to work towards excellence in the hats you make. We want people to talk about the trade and, particularly, excellence in the trade”.

Strengthen Training

Underlining the difficulties of a profession which at first glance doesn’t appear to be so hard to the untrained eye, Pawlowsky says, “There is a lot of ground to cover with regards education. We have to recover the value of things. The thing we are dealing with here, i.e., a hat, deserves to be made as well as it possibly can be. I always remind my students that they shouldn’t think about finishing off a hat without first ensuring it is perfect on the inside”.

Pawlowsky spends part of her time teaching new talents at the Massana school and at Felicidad Duce in Barcelona. She has a very good knowledge of the education programmes that exist for learning how to design or make hats.

“As things stand today, there is no regulated training programme that teaches all of the aspects of the profession. There are subjects that run for around 60 hours, but that only gives you enough time to get an introduction to the trade,” she says.

Given this situation, it is more common for people to teach themselves and for colleagues within the profession to exchange ideas and know-how.

“It’s very hard work, especially when you’re making hats for men. In the old days only male milliners would make men’s hats because of the enormous physical effort needed to handle material like felt. But now we women are getting in on it, too!” says Cristina de Prada, smiling as she shows off her arms.

The complicity between the two milliners is clear. They have been working together for nearly a decade on the idea of “getting people to stop being embarrassed and to head out into the street with a hat on and enjoy it”.

Although the trend is still weak, they also agree that hats are slowly becoming a fashion item. “The big chains and people like Kate Middleton are encouraging young people to don a hat like their grandparents did. That’s a positive sign,” they say. However, they immediately go on to lament how hard it is to compete with the products that major brands turn out at a low price. “A few buttons, a bit of fabric you’ve found in grandma’s attic and a silicone gun don’t make a hat. Who can compete with that?” they exclaim. Again, they say that the training period needed to learn how to make a hat well is very long and makes it difficult to compete on price. “What we have to do is compete on creativity,” they say.

The great passion they feel for their profession means that de Prada and Pawlowsky don’t hesitate in assuring that “it’s a trade with a future”. They both combine their work as milliners with other jobs. However, that has never been an obstacle to them achieving great renown within the sector.

Reference points

The quality of their work and the originality of the pieces they make have their roots in the long and valuable period they spent teaching themselves, on the one hand, but they have also learnt from masters such as Britain’s Stephen Jones  and New York’s Lola Ehrlich. Both these famous milliners shared their tips with Nina Pawlowsky during the work experience periods she did in their ateliers.

Cristina de Prada, who was last year named a finalist in the Hat Designers of the Year competition by the British trade rag Hat Magazine, has also had a great teacher in Dutch designer  Marianne Jongkind, who has taught her more about the trade.

As well as direct commissions from customers, de Prada currently has two collections in The Millinery Guild, a store in Hollywood which is opening the door to further activity on the American market.

Meanwhile, Pawlowsky, who wants to focus more “on commissions rather than collections”, is working to fulfil an order from the company Menchén Tomas, for whom she is designing a selection of headwear. She also works on designs for shows and, particularly, the theatre. In the past, Pawlowsky has worked with firms including Desigual, Antonio Miró, Cortana and Josep Font.

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