Chapeaus just don't have the cache that they once did. In fact, few if any people even know what a chapeau is. (It's a hat.) But back in the day, handcrafted hats used to be a major part of any lady or gentleman's wardrobe. Modern folks, on the other hand, are more likely to leave the house bareheaded — for shame! Accessorizing with a hat is almost as much of a lost art as hatmaking itself, but milliners like Julia Pagan are working hard to bring the hat back.
After years of making hats on the side, Pagan has opened up a studio in Avondale called Julia Pagan Boutique (845 Savannah Hwy.). It's been a long journey since she started out as an apprentice at the Hat Box in her hometown of Mill Valley, Calif. There, Dorothea Schubert served as Pagan's mentor, teaching her shapes, materials, styles of hats, and all their different elements. Pagan took millinery classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, then moved to Charleston, where she started making custom hats for a few clients. Her creations started showing up in local boutiques like Seeking Indigo, which used them in a runway show Charleston Fashion Week, and in 2008, the Warhol Factory x Levi's x Damien Hirst's show featured Pagan's work at New York Fashion Week.
Pagan's new shop represents a full-time shift for the designer. A cozy little boutique and workspace, it's filled with antique mirrors, photographs of Pagan's products, and, of course, hats — lots of hats. A rack of metal shelves in the back corner houses a hodgepodge of fascinating hat molds in all different shapes. A hat stretcher, resembling a rounded stone sliced in half, sits atop the worktable, used to size each hat accordingly.
The hats in the boutique are diverse, and Pagan plans to keep branching out. "I get really inspired by so many different styles, so I like to keep it open," Pagan says. "I like doing whimsical conversation-piece hats, derby hats, fascinators, a little bit of everything. I do design for men as well, though the line is primarily for women now, but I'd like to expand."
The actual creation process is complex. Pagan takes felted material and mulls it with steam, using blocking ropes to form the shape of the hat over a wooden mold. Straw hats are made by dipping pieces in a gelatin and water solution, hanging them to dry and harden, soaking them again in water, blocking them with ropes, and trimming down the finished product. Pagan also lines the hats and adds on the all-important finishing touches.
The hats are made from a variety of materials, from course raffia straw to fluffy beaver felt. Prices vary as well, with smaller pieces, hair clips, and fascinators (think Kate Middleton-style headpieces) starting at $15, and oversized derby hats selling for up to $250. "The average hat is around $160," Pagan says. Her next project is bridal pieces, then she hopes to branch out even more. "I'd like to do a small line of clothes, a small jewelry line, and we're thinking about candles."
Even if Pagan must hire on extra help to keep up with sales, she plans to be involvd in every hat that goes out of her shop. "I want to have my hand on every piece," she says, "even if it's just finishing touches."