Gold is the new black
Suzy O'Rouke's hats
Suzy O'Rourke's designs.
A BACKGROUND in theatre and film comes in handy when you want to create headwear that stands out from the crowd. So it's not surprising two of Australia's leading milliners trained in costume design before focusing exclusively on hats. For many spring carnival observers, admiring the theatricality of the exquisite chapeaux on display is half the fun of a racing event.
Sydney-based Suzy O'Rourke first created hats as part of a costume design course at the National Art School and found herself increasingly attracted to theatrical millinery. As well as the appeal of not having to sew, O'Rourke says millinery has a wonderful artistic element to it. ''It's such a sculptural process; every project is different. Hats come alive once they are on your head. They are so close to the face; it's just more exciting.''
Louise Macdonald perfected her skills in London working on BBC costume dramas (including creating the wedding bonnet for Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth) and Merchant Ivory films, before returning to Melbourne to establish her own studio. In the Nicholas Building, Swanston Street, clients can see the creative process at work as Macdonald and her staff cut materials and straw at large tables. A few small tables show off the results: elegant and delicate creations that can transform an outfit.
As preparation for the spring carnival gains momentum, Macdonald says small, sculpted headpieces positioned centrally on the head, rather than to the left or right - a trend led by the Philip Treacy hats worn at last year's royal wedding - will be popular. ''In the last two to three years, smaller hats have been more fashionable. You won't see so many big brims,'' she says.
O'Rourke agrees. ''Smaller hats are more practical - you can actually talk to people [while wearing them].'' O'Rourke says she has been inspired by the fashion of the 1920s and 1950s, including Gatsby-style cloches and straw boaters, and glamorous '50s-style flowers. Metallics, pastels and strategic pops of colour in cerise and blue will feature, too.
Macdonald also predicts metallic colours will feature heavily at this year's spring carnival. ''Gold is a good colour to be using, as it can be worn with lots of other colours,'' she says. ''It's the new black.''
This season O'Rourke will also use lattice-weave rattan instead of straw, leaving some hats in their natural tone and others enamelled in high-gloss black. The material will be turned into elegant and sculptural shapes inspired by flowers. ''It will be like walking through a Parisian garden,'' she says.
O'Rourke says racing millinery tends to be very classic, with most women focusing on detail in their clothes. ''I always do something in black and white. This year it's floral with an edge. I'm making enamelled black orchids and clean, structured shapes.''
Macdonald is keen on upcycling - reusing older hats made with high-quality straw to create new designs, and recycling fabrics. Beautiful pieces of antique lace and small pieces of digitally printed fabrics make an appearance in her range this year.
Macdonald's hats are surprisingly comfortable. Delicate little headpieces sit effortlessly on the head thanks to fine elastic and quality headbands. ''I'm not into suffering,'' she says. ''Comfort is very important.''
Since O'Rourke started her business in 2003, she has focused on racing and bridal millinery. Her hats are shipped around the world, including appearing on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week, and an O'Rourke millinery range is available at David Jones. Two of her creations were included in 2010's Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery.
Macdonald's hats are sold through Hugo Boss' two Melbourne stores, online and from her studio. Two of her hats, Miss Moneypenny and Bibi Cap, were bought by the National Gallery of Victoria for its collection in 2008, and last year she celebrated 20 years in millinery with a retrospective at the Stephen McLaughlan Gallery in Melbourne.
While hats demand attention during the spring carnival, Macdonald and O'Rourke work year-round creating hats for racing events in Australia and overseas, as well as the bridal market. Since the push to get younger people to the races, Macdonald says the demand for racing millinery has been very consistent.
O'Rourke thinks hats are definitely making a comeback. ''Most people photographed by style.com at Fashion Week recently were wearing hats,'' she says. ''It started on the runway, but accessories are gaining more and more momentum. It's only baby steps, but it's very exciting.''
■Louise Macdonald Milliner is at room 3, level 8, 37 Swanston Street, city, 9650 1352 or visit millinery.com.au
■Suzy O'Rourke Millinery is at level 5, 16-20 Barrack Street, Sydney, (02) 9262 3525, or see suzyorourke.com.au