“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.”
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
“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.”
Recycled Flower Magpie Headband
Desborough Boater Hat
“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.”