Q&A: Milliner Piers Atkinson on His Retrospective Collection

Q&A: Milliner Piers Atkinson on His Retrospective Collection
Piers Atkinson's Retrospective Collection
(© Morgan White)

In recent years, a new generation of off-the-wall contemporary milliners has emerged in London and reinvigorated the English tradition that is eccentric headgear. Piers Atkinson has risen to the top of the pack. The go-to guy for all that is fantastic, outrageous, and wild, Atkinson celebrates his 10th season this spring. Indeed, he’s come a long way since he started his millinery out of his East London home five years ago. The designer’s hyper cherries, feathered toppers, and quirky chapeaux embellished with dolls have been worn by everyone from Rihanna to Princess Beatrice to Anna Dello Russo. And through all his success, Atkinson has maintained the playful, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that makes his hats so enticing.

For spring, the designer created a retrospective collection. Inspired by old Hollywood, Atkinson took a look back at his last 10 seasons and reimagined his looks through the lens of vintage glamour. His ostrich plume berets are shown bigger and in a frosty pink. His signature cherries are crusted in Swarovski crystals, as are his veils, which add a twinkly kick to extreme offerings and classic pieces (like his straw cartwheel hat) alike. Blossoming rose accents and modest, high-gloss berets exude a demure elegance, while his feather wigs in dusty pink or grey have both the allure of Louise Brooks and the wacky charm of Liza Minnelli. Particularly ingenious is his black rose hat, which is garnished with a laser-cut metallic veil. When exposed to a camera flash, the veil veritably whites out the face, providing a clever cloak, or perhaps, mask of invisibility. Here, Atkinson reflects on the last five years, talks about borrowing materials from his milliner mother, and explains his spring collection.

What is the concept behind your spring 2013 collection?

It’s our 10th season. We’ve come so far so fast, dressing princesses, Anna Dello Russo, you name it. Our collections are getting big and lavish and complicated but people still want the witty toys and dolls they’ve seen from us in the past. So I wanted to do a round up of sorts and we looked at the hats from previous seasons through the lens of the Hollywood camera of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.  We wanted  this Hollywood glamour feel.

Why were you drawn to this era?

The women in those films all had fabulous hair, fabulous hats, and fabulous clothes. Hollywood portrayed a certain fantasy in that period.

Were there any starlets that you looked at in particular?

Yes! Lana Turner, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Mae West, of course. The National Portrait Gallery in London had a brilliant exhibition recently called “Glamour of the Gods,” with all the portraits of the Hollywood gods and goddesses. And it was incredibly inspiring and was a big part of our research for this collection.

What materials did you work with this season?

Well there’s a straw hat for which we used vintage straw. My mother was a milliner and she had this black straw left over and I used that. She’s had it for 30 years or something and it had gotten a bit faded so we sprayed it black and varnished it and it became so rich. Then there’s a gray platted raffia. We’ve used lots of feathers and silk flowers this season. There’s a printed organza by Zandra Rhodes, the iconic British textile designer. I’ve worked with her for years. And the boater hat is actually made out of a woven paper. It’s very light, very durable, and it’s got a lovely matte finish.

What was the thinking behind the reflective veil you’ve done this season?

So we started to use quite a lot of laser cutting. We laser cut organza. We laser cut a lot of our lettering and shapes and made a star Perspex laser cut tiara and the lettering on the Hollywood Land hat is all laser cut. So we sent off some of this reflective material here to have it laser cut as a millinery veil, which we’ve draped over the hat. And if you do any paparazzi flash photography, it completely bleaches out anything apart from the veil in white.

Why did you decide to incorporate the dolls again this season?

Well that again was part of the retrospective look at our past ten seasons. And I don’t know, the dolls absolutely kill me. They make me laugh my head off just by putting them on a headpiece. I just love her, you know. She’s Hollywood today, isn’t she?

Can you talk about the palette and how that ties into your Hollywood theme?

We really took it back into monochrome: silver, grey black, and white. I didn’t wait to have it completely black and white so we started to put a bit of pink in. I think pink and grey is such a lovely combination. It felt very Chanel. Very chic. So we put a bit of pink in and then a little bit more and a little bit more and it’s ended up becoming half of the collection with some flashes of a deep fuchsia, which sort of gives it a base note.

How do you hope women feel when wearing these hats?

I hope these hats make their wearers feel very glamorous, chic, and sexy. There was a girl who came in today to try on hats and she looked a million dollars. And I think she felt a million dollars. That’s what we want someone to feel when they wear a hat. And if you’re wearing some of these things and you go off to a party, you will get a lot of attention. It’s the Anna Dello Russo effect.

Do you think hats are catching on outside the UK?

For sure. We sell a lot in Asia. Thailand and Japan, specifically, and also in China. Pop stars in Korea are wearing what we do. We’ve become quote popular in the UK. And we’ve just started selling in Palm Beach and in Opening Ceremony in the States.

How do you feel you’ve evolved as a designer over the past 10 seasons? And what does it mean to you to be showing your 10th collection?

We make our things more beautifully now for sure. When I first started making these hats, I saw them as sort of press pieces and party pieces for me and my friends. Now we’re selling to pop stars, British nobility, and a lot of chic customers. But I think we experiment more with fabric and techniques now. But I can’t believe it’s come around so quickly. It’s our 10th season, five years. And really I was just saying to friends just now, I hadn’t expected this business to have taken off in the way that it has. I didn’t even dare to dream to be honest. So to look at all the work that we’ve done, it’s a really lovely thing. It makes one feel proud and excited but also to think about business and where we stand now, just five years later, it’s quite a surprise. It’s a nice surprise.