Mad about Hats

In the first of a series, Irish Milliner, Emily Kelly sat down with us for a candid chat about fashion and the serious business of hats

Emily Kelly, the Kildare based Irish milliner behind Emily K Hats, has been featured on TV3’s Xposé, in The Galway Voice and Liffey Champion newspapers and has appeared at The Brown Cow Best Dressed Ladies Lunch millinery showcase at the Royal St. George Yacht Club, Dun Laoghaire.

Emily discovered her passion for hats while studying for a diploma in Fibre Arts at Ballyfermot College in Dublin. Since then she has gone on to study at GMIT and at NCAD and has now launched her own business which she has big plans for. While we chatted it became clear that Emily’s extraordinary creative talent is rooted deeply in her homeland and she dreams of building her fashion empire here in her own locality.


Although she was artistic from a young age, it was when she was working on designing her own felts and embroidery that she caught the bug for hat making.

Family is very important to her and she told us how her parents always encouraged her and her artistic siblings to follow their hearts.  ‘I come from a very creative family, so I was supported in it. My parents always taught us to go to college and get your qualification, do what you want to do and be passionate about it. They never really wanted us to just fall into a job, they wanted us to be happy and have a career that supports us of course, but they want us to do what we’re passionate about’.

Tell us a little bit about Emily K Hats…

‘I’d like to expand someday, it’s in the early stages at the moment, I have my studio at home, but ultimately I would like to have a boutique in a busy area. That said, I would like to stay as local as I can because I think that it’s important to keep local design trading within the local area. I mean you look at Philip Treacy, he’s now in London and he’s from Galway, and Orla Kiely, she’s London-based too, so all her products say Orla Kiely London on them. Yet we know she’s from Ireland. I don’t want to be one of those Irish designers who had to go to the U.K. I mean I think they had to do that at the time that they were starting, but there has been a change since then. Since the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s economic landscape has changed and you shouldn’t have to do that now. We do have good footfall here, and plenty of visitors who are interested in Irish design and what we can offer.

from Emily K Hats Bridal Collection

The only thing I would say is that I would like better suppliers based here for my millinery designs. I would like to buy locally, but there are no local suppliers for what I do, but I want to buy from Irish companies where I can. One of the suppliers I used to be able to visit is now gone, so I source much of what I buy online from businesses that are based in Ireland. It is handy to be able to drop in and match colours up, so having a bricks & mortar store nearby would be great, but I have sample swatches from my suppliers which I can show clients at our consultation to help them with colour and fabric choices so it’s ok. If they need something very specific which can’t be gotten from a supplier then I get specialised spray paint to ensure that they get what they want. There’s a specialist supplier in Temple Bar, in the centre of Dublin, who I go to for that.

I like creating a contemporary style, but I really like fine little details, embroidery, making my own printed fabrics, making my own felts and then embellishing that with beadwork and embroidery, or adding lace. I love to embellish certain parts of my hats, and then I can be very clean cut with a design at the same time. There are two sides to my work, there’s the clean contemporary side and then there’s the more vintage, highly embellished end – and then I like to mix them up too!’

What inspired you to start your own boutique business?

‘There isn’t a whole lot of opportunities to work in millinery here in Ireland, it’s quite a closed circuit. Most of the milliners work for themselves, but that said, I’m not going to say that I wouldn’t go and work for someone else. I have trained with Martha Lynn before at her workshop, and she is lovely. Her collection is actually on sale at Só Collective in Kildare Village at the moment. She’s an incredible designer, she’s like me, she likes both vintage and contemporary styles too. Your style continuously grows and changes over time, so that’s where I’m at now. Right now I’ve got my studio and I’m working on building up my reputation but there’s more to come.’

from Emily K Hats S/S Collection

How do you begin when you’re designing a hat for someone?

‘They usually ring me up and say that I’m looking for something very specific. I ask them to bring in the outfit that they want to wear it with. When they come in I will show them my range of hats and my book of past work so that they can get an idea of what I do. Then we discuss their needs and the budget. I have a set budget, but when they need something extra then we negotiate the budget around that. I like each hat to have something unique, even if  a client particularly likes a given style I generally explain that I’ll work around that design but that their hat will have some extra touches that makes it unique to them. When clients come to me they’re looking for something unique. I don’t want anyone to be able to say that someone else had the same hat as them but in a different colour. I want all my clients to have a unique, once off piece that they can be proud of. So I always check where the event is taking place so that if I have two clients attending the same event they will be wearing different styles.

While some people will come in and say ‘I need a black hat, can you show me what you’ve got in a black hat?’, which makes my job easy, others come in with a very specific idea of what they would like. They might want it to match their shoes, so we go through a whole process to design a piece that is perfect for them. Sometimes it’s tricky to achieve an exact colour match. For example, different fabrics take the dye differently, and though I might have put them all in the same vat of dye the end result will be different. So, in that case, I might suggest that a client opts for a number of shades in the same hat. That can mean that the hat will complement their outfit better and a vibrant palette of colour also gives the hat extra character, helping it come to life.

from Emily K Hats A/W Collection

I invite the customer back before I finalise the piece to ensure that they’re happy with everything. Only then do I go ahead and assemble the piece. Everything is hand sewn unless there is a need to glue a specific detail on, and, in that case, I want to be doubly sure that the customer loves it before it’s fixed to the hat.

When a client doesn’t have a clear picture in their head about what they want it is great in terms of the free reign I have to design something fresh for them, but there is also the risk that the design elements I include might not be to the client’s personal tastes. So, to avoid any heartache I prefer to pin down the size that the client is comfortable with along with some style choices; this just makes the process a little bit easier. It means that they’re more likely to be happy when they come back’.

Who are the biggest influences on your work?

‘I love Chanel. I love the fact that Coco Chanel started as a milliner. I love that she started and then failed, but picked herself up and started again. She never gave up on her dream and it’s been history ever since. Chanel is classic. It’s fresh, that’s what they are great at. They freshen up their look while retaining that essential Chanel style. I love Dior too. But when it comes to millinery design, I’d have to say Phillip Treacy. I went to college in Galway and he’s from Galway. I actually did my thesis on Treacy and his collaboration with Alexander McQueen and how they worked together on each other’s shows. It really inspired me, I love collaborating with people to create something completely different. It can be difficult, but I love it. I love how he’s pushed the boundaries of design. I love his stuff. He’s influenced Irish design at a whole different level.

Philip Treacy

There are so many creative people in the area of creating accessories but we don’t have a degree to match it. We have degrees in fashion, textiles, sculpture, fine arts, ceramics, glasswork and they have a jewellery course in NCAD. Yet, when it comes to the likes of glove work, umbrella design, millinery, shoe and bag design, there are no specific degree courses to help students working in these areas to develop their craft in a university setting. I think we’re missing that in this country. I’d love to do a phD on that, illustrating why education in this area is important, maybe someday…

I was delighted when I started working with Só Collective in Kildare Village because they showcase all new Irish designers. It’s just fantastic. I love being able to chat with customers, tell them about the designers, and allay their reservations when they think a product is quite expensive. I love getting out there and meeting new people, it feeds my own creativity too. It’s important to know what the market wants. I think what Só Collective are doing is very important in supporting new Irish design.

If I was to pick one designer as my favourite I would have to choose Philip Treacy, I’ve learned so much about him. But we have such great talent in this country, we have Helen Cody, whose stuff is lovely. Cody is very couture, she does one off’s and sews everything herself. She’s had a new showcase just this month. Pauric Sweeney is a very talented bag designer, who had almost a floor to himself in Brown Thomas. He’s now coming back to Ireland after a stint in Milan. Liz Quin has been around quite some time but she still sells. She listens to her customers and delivers what they want. ‘

Helen Cody

How do you feel about the demise of hats?

‘I guess people’s priorities just changed. They started to go out of common wear during the fifties, it was a post-war world and people couldn’t afford the luxuries they had before. As a result, hats became more functional. Hats were always around, but what was once considered an everyday hat is now only worn for special occasions such as going to the races or a wedding. I’ve made one off woollen hats as well. People can tend to feel a bit daunted by hats today. People often say to me ‘hats don’t suit me’ or ‘hats and me just don’t agree’, but my response to them is ‘you just haven’t met the right hat yet’. They haven’t found the one that suits who they are and the right cut for their face. I can tell what kind of hat will suit a person straight off.

Hat culture has changed over time. How we wear them has changed too, people used to wear them every day and there was etiquette surrounding it, but that’s gone now by & large. You see young people wearing woolly hats year round now, it’s a style statement and that’s fine. I say go for it!’

Next time we’ll be discussing another one of Emily’s passions, bridal fashion and delving deeper into the craft behind the wonderful world of hats. Don’t miss it!

You can watch a video showcasing some of the beautiful designers available at So Collective in Kildare Village, as mentioned by Emily, here.

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