It seems that the Royal Wedding has initiated interest in hats. I have been contacted by four people in the past month who want to become hat designers. There is more to being a milliner than meets the eye. It is a lot more than making and designing hats.
Hat design or millinery is a highly skilled profession requiring the right materials. I went to F.I.T. in New York and completed their millinery program. One obviously has to know how to sew and work with material. Purchasing hat blocks is key and not inexpensive. Many blocks are $250 and up. In the first ten years, I spent quite a bit of money on supplies and did not make a profit until just a few years ago. It takes a lot of start-up money, even if working from home.
What can be frustrating is seeing how cheap overseas imports can be made for practically nothing and sold for the same price as your designs. Many of the birdcage fascinators in the wedding stores cost the shops about $10 to buy and they sell them for $60 each. As a independent designer, I can not compete with that unless I decide to pay people pennies an hour, such as they do overseas, to make the items.
There is issue of designing as well. As a successful milliner, you have to design for your clients and what they like. It’s a very personalized business. A client who is paying a lot of money for a hat or fascinator expects and deserves a top level of workmanship and design.
While hat design is creative, running a business is not. There are many days where I do not pick up a hat or design at all. I am working on the website, running the financials, ordering supplies from all the vendors, answering emails, working on the blog, facebook, etc. I had heard many designers say this before I got into the business and now I see what they mean. It’s just part of doing business.
Staying ahead of the trends and constantly reinventing your line is key.
While I love what I do, I don’t know if I would advise a family member to go into it. The hard thing about couture millinery is just that there still isn’t that big of a call for it. Sure more people are buying hats, but they are mostly for special events. The market will never be what it was back before the 1950’s. Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do, but most hat designers do not make much money. The market is just not that big.
Handbags are a great field to get into. Most ladies always carry a handbag and own up to a dozen each. I know someone who makes them herself and they are just gorgeous. Also, clothing for children (high end). Items that people need everyday and can use at a good price point is key.
My favorite success story involves Sara Blakely. The inventor of Spanx took $5,000 and footless pantyhose and turned that into a multi-million international business. Sara Blakely took the concept of something that people need and ran with it. I was at Dillards a few weeks ago purchasing tights when I saw the Spanx video. The sales lady told me that she had sold 100 pairs that day alone! Utterly amazing.
I do love making hats and would always make them, even if I weren’t in business.