Hunched over 50-year-old sewing machines in a workshop in central Paris, milliners diligently stitch together straps of straw that grow into a spiral that grows into a hat. The boaters, adorned with a black grosgrain band, will join the rabbit-felt fedoras, cloches and other bonnets made in the cramped atelier of Mademoiselle Chapeaux, a 6-year-old brand at the forefront of a millinery renaissance.
Another is Maison Michel, one of the largest and fastest-growing high-end hat brands, which opened an in-store boutique in the department store Printemps here last month. Fans include Pharrell Williams, Alexa Chung and Jessica Alba.
“The hat is a new means of expression. In a way, it is the new tattoo,” said Priscilla Royer, the artistic director at the Chanel-owned brand.
Back in the 1920s, there were milliners on nearly every street corner in Paris, and no self-respecting man or woman left the house without a hat. Hats were not only status symbols, but a gateway to the fashion world: Famous milliners who turned into full-blown fashion designers include Gabrielle Chanel (better known as Coco), Jeanne Lanvin and (two centuries earlier) Rose Bertin, Queen Marie-Antoinette’s seamstress. But after the May 1968 student riots, hats fell out of favor as French youth ditched their parents’ sartorial habits as a symbol of their newfound freedom.
By the 1980s, traditional 19th-century millinery techniques like straw-hat sewing and felt-hat steaming had all but disappeared. Now they are making a comeback, powered by a new generation of hat makers seeking to tap customers’ growing appetite for the handmade and the unique.
Caroline de Maigret, one of the authors of “How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits” and a Chanel brand ambassador, said that the stigma once attached to the hat as a status symbol has almost entirely disappeared.
“A few years ago, people in Paris could think you were acting like a rock star if you wore a hat,” she said. “Now, it has become more common, and the fact that we live in the era of social media, where people constantly put their lives on stage, has also made wearing a hat easier.”
Tamara Taichman, a fashion editor at French Elle, noted: “Clothes give you allure, but accessories give you style. A girl wearing a dress and a biker jacket has become very common, but wearing a hat immediately gives her more of an attitude.”
Chloé Thiéblin, who founded Mademoiselle Chapeaux in 2011, began her own production in central Paris three years ago and opened another boutique with her mother in the northern French city of Lille in 2015. Now, she said, they are doing such brisk business that she is in talks to acquire a workshop that supplies major luxury brands.
“Finding suppliers who could provide me with the type of hats I wanted proved such a struggle that, in the end, I decided to invest in my own atelier,” she said.
And Cerise sur le Chapeau, the Parisian milliner that offers brightly colored rabbit-felt and straw hats with customized grosgrain bands, is setting up a workshop-boutique in Japan, one of the world’s largest hat markets.
Marie Marquet, a 26-year-old milliner who created her own brand, MiniMe Paris, after earning her stripes at Maison Michel, said, “I feel that every three months a new hat brand is being created.”
Indeed, the number of hat labels presenting their wares at Premiere Classe, the accessories trade show that took place last week in Paris and is held twice a year, has nearly doubled in the past three years, organizers said.
Marquet’s Tutti Frutti and Walt Disney-inspired creations have just been admitted to the Designers Apartment showroom for young designers, held during Paris Fashion Week. Her hats, made in a Paris cellar, have become so popular, particularly among young Asian customers, that she recently started offering matching coats and dresses.
The hat market is worth around $15 billion (or 14.1 billion euros) annually, according to the market research company Euromonitor – a fraction of the global $52 billion handbag market.
But even beyond Paris, in cities like New York and Los Angeles where there are vibrant fashion scenes, hat makers like Janessa Leoné, Gigi Burris and Gladys Tamez are expanding fast, with orders piling in from around the world.
And retailers from Paris, London and Shanghai all said they had noticed a clear uptick in hat sales. Both the upmarket department stores Le Bon Marché in Paris, owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and Printemps have noticed increased demand in the past three seasons among women as well as men.
The rival Lane Crawford, with department stores in Hong Kong and mainland China, said that it had just increased its hat purchases by 50 percent and that they were among its strongest-selling fashion accessories.
“Most popular styles are reworked classics, like the fedora, Panama and hats with brims, for both men and women,” said Andrew Keith, the company’s president. “Our customers have mentioned that they enjoy wearing hats on casual days off – a good way for them to go natural while still looking fashionable and stylish.”
The online retailer Net-a-Porter said fedoras remained the most popular type of hats for their customers, although there recently was a notable rise in sales of caps and beanies.
“Customers are becoming increasingly adventurous and self-confident in crafting their own personal style,” said Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director at Net-a-Porter, now part of the Milan-listed Yoox Net-a-Porter Group. Aiken said hat sales were growing strongly in Asia, with revenues up 14 percent year over year in 2016 in China.
Stephen Jones, a London-based milliner who is both founder of his own brand and the go-to designer for fashion houses including Christian Dior and Azzedine Alaia, said he had never been busier.
“The hat is no longer about prestige; it is about looking cool, about looking now,” he said. “That hat adds a bit of sparkle in what is a very gray and frightened world at the moment.”