“I’m very serious about my craft and the craft of millinery as a whole,” says Albertus Swanepoel. One look at the handiwork of the South African hatmaker is enough to know that he’s truly a man of his word. Having gained renown for his superb level of artistry and an offering that draws inspiration from sources as far-ranging as his native Africa and his fondness for opera, Swanepoel is marking the tenth anniversary of his namesake brand this year with a very special collection of three one-of-a-kind handmade hats that epitomize his love of craft.

“I wanted to do something special for Barneys because I’ve been with them all ten years, and they’ve always been so supportive of me,” he tells us. “We started talking about creating some unique, elaborate pieces to illustrate and bring attention to the fantasy side of millinery.”

albertus swanepoel
Milliner Albertus Swanepoel

That fantasy, though, has firm roots in the reality of traditional techniques, many of which Swanepoel sees falling by the wayside as fewer people make hats. “It’s really about the craft to me, because I do feel that millinery is rather neglected,” he says. “Many people don’t understand the fact that making a single hat can take a week. In a subtle way, I wanted to demonstrate that with these hats. That was the big challenge for me, to create these hats in the traditional millinery methods but that still felt modern, wearable, and desirable.”

All of Swanepoel’s hats are made by hand at his New York workshop, which hosts walls bedecked with the vestiges of bygone craftsmanship. Shelves of vintage hat blocks and rolls of grosgrain ribbons serve as décor and backdrop to the work he does of creating often surprisingly sleek, minimalist designs. But this special collection also gave him the opportunity to venture into a more elaborate side of his creativity.

“I used this as a chance to go more toward the romantic, using things like flowers as a motif across these three styles. I believe in beauty. With the times we’re in now, a little beauty never does any harm!” That sense of beauty is nearly inevitable, given the level of personal attention Swanepoel puts into each of his creations. “Every single hat we make in the shop goes through my hands in some capacity. I love what I do—this is my passion—and I hope that comes through.”

Scroll on for a closer look at the process of creating these stunning one-of-a-kind pieces.

 

Manon Top Hat

albertus swanepoel“The original shape of this style dates back to the 1700s. This type of high-level topper is like a woman’s horseback riding hat, so that was my inspiration, but I wanted to make it more stark, minimal, and graphic. People, in buying a hat, want to feel some association or connection to something they’ve seen before, and there have been a lot of movies recently set in the era when this style was popular. But it was about making it modern.”

albertus swanepoel
While the original inspiration for the hat was from the 1700s, Swanepoel strove to make the style more sleek and modern. Part of the freshening up came via the placement of handmade silk roses that were crafted in the 1940s.
albertus swanepoel
“This hat was built in the true couture method of making hats. I constructed a pattern, and then built a base out of buckram, which is a very traditional millinery fabric that is firm and keeps its shape.”
albertus swanepoel
“Then I covered it in flannel to conceal the gritty texture of the buckram. Only then can you cover it in the final fabric. So you have to be incredibly accurate and meticulous with every step to ensure that each layer fits over the last.”
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“The brim was the same—I made a buckram frame with wires, covered the whole thing in the same way I did the top, then put it all together. But just that, to get the actual base shape of the hat, took about 60 hours. Only once that was done could I start thinking about placing the silk roses, the trim, and the silk veiling. If you look at hats from the ‘30s and ‘40s, they were almost all made this way. Sadly, we just don’t live in a society anymore where people appreciate that craftsmanship.”

 

Recycled Flower Magpie Headband

albertus swanepoel“With this style, I wanted to push the envelope in terms of headbands and do something a bit more conceptual while still keeping it whimsical. I think that hats shouldn’t be funny, but rather witty. There has to be an element of wit.”

albertus swanepoel

alberus swanepoel
“My favorite part of creating this piece was working with the Magpie Art Collective, a group of artists from South Africa that I really respect, and finding ways to use their craft in a modern context. I love that in South Africa people take very everyday products and turn them into something great. The example of recycling plastic bottles into these flowers was really wonderful and truly magical. America is such a country of excess and everywhere you look there’s so much to choose from, whereas so much of the world finds something that they can use and make it into something else, which I really like.”
albertus swanepoel
“This was more the result of an intellectual inspiration. I always spend a lot of time thinking about what I make—is it relevant? Is it modern? Is it wearable?”

 

Desborough Boater Hat

albertus swanepoel“The exaggerated silhouette of this style is something that women wore a lot in Victorian times, and I wanted to take that as inspiration. I played with proportions, as well as the color and texture combinations. The resulting hat isn’t necessarily something that a woman is going to wear every day—it’s more of a showpiece.”

albertus swanepoel
The crown of this boater style is actually much wider than the wearer’s head, giving it an exaggerated size and proportion that pushes it toward the whimsical.
albertus swanepoel
“We created the buckram foundation from patterns we designed, then covered it with the materials. This entire hat is hand-sewn, which takes hours and hours to do.”
albertus swanepoel
“For the brim, the material is called racello and it’s made in Italy. It’s a material that was traditionally used a lot in the ‘40s and 50s by designers like Schiaparelli, but it’s fallen out of favor because it’s something that has to be sewn by hand—there’s no machine that can stich this material. I love the glossiness and the richness of the material, but what affected me most was the very unusual color of this one.”
albertus swanepoel
“The crown, the black part, is made of Paglina, a Swiss braided material made of cotton and viscose. The flower was handmade in France in the 1950s. I only have it because I was able to purchase it from a milliner who went out of business.”

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