Kim Fletcher – Milliner
Posted October 13, 2011, by Elizabeth Fenech
What does a milliner do?
Milliners design and make hats. They take headwear from concept to completion.
What is a 'fascinator' and what is a 'hatinator'?
Fascinators originated in a time when women didn't have many showers and baths because water was scarce. They used to put a piece of veiling across their hair to disguise the fact that their hair was greasy and dirty. The more modern version of a fascinator now is a kind of hair band featuring a couple of feathers or small flowers.
A 'hatinator' is a term that someone in a marketing department made up this year there's no such thing historically! What's happened over the past two years is fascinators have grown up. They've become bigger, so they're not fascinators any more, but they're not quite a hat. I guess someone's tried to find a term that describes this new in-between style. A hatinator has a small cocktail shape with a large trimming on it.
How did you get started in the industry?
By mistake! I used to work in administration doing payroll for a trucking company. But my husband always had horses and he's always been a punter so I always went to the races. My daughter was born in 1990 and I went back to work soon after. Like a lot of women I struggled to find myself. When you try to make time for everything, work and looking after a child, you disappear to a certain extent and I felt that I had nothing of my own.
Just by chance, I saw an ad for a millinery course. The class was one night a week for six months. I thought, the worst thing that could happen was I'd end up with an odd hat! I started the course in 1993 and I was hooked.
That six-month course was extended to 12 months. After that I started my own little market stall in the city on Sundays. I got a really good grounding dealing with people and looking at styles. It was hard yakka though!
Two years after that that I got a studio to start my millinery business. I now have a shopfront and I've been here for nine years.
Where do you draw inspirations for designs from?
I get most of my inspiration from the actual material. The fabrics tend to set the direction of where I'm going with design.
You have to take into consideration that we don't make the fashion; we follow the clothing. We look at spring clothing designs and what styles are coming through. This year, there are lots of frills and ruffles, dresses are huge and it's all very light so we haven't made lots of heavily structured hats because they just don't work with those types of garments.
Does making hats involve any trial and error or test runs?
If it's around April, sure! But when it's this close to the Carnival, we can't afford to do test runs! The hats we make now must be ones we know how to create technically because we haven't got time to muck around.
When we come back from the Dubai World Cup in April, we sit down and brainstorm ideas for spring, because, by that time, I've had a look at the collections of the designers I work with. Their collections give me an idea of what's coming through in terms of colour and style, and we go from there.
What's involved in Fashions on the Field?
Fashions on the Field was originally held to try to get women to the racecourse. The annual fashion competition, held at Flemington, is now arguably more popular than the races themselves. Contestants are selected from each state to compete in the competition and the winner is awarded with prizes and publicity.
Lots of countries overseas have seen the kind of reception the races get in Melbourne and they're trying to replicate this popularity. They're using the fashion element to do that.
Does your workload increase in the lead-up to the Spring Carnival?
Because most of what we do is made-to-measure, it is very laborious and there is obviously a rush around the Spring Carnival. It can mean working to very tight deadlines.
What's your favourite material to work with? Is there any material you wouldn't work with?
This season, my favourite is a material called jinsin. It's a woven fabric where straw is intertwined with silk and you can make some really great sculptural shapes with it, which is a bit different to what we've done previously.
I wouldn't work with polypropylene. If you have ever been to a Greek or Italian wedding where women wear brightly coloured hats that look like they're made out of plastic, that's polypropylene. When women put them on their heads when it's sunny, they sweat like hell. I know why they go for them, because you can get really vibrant colours out of them, but because it's plastic, they are so hot.
In millinery well paid?
No! It's very seasonal. It would be nice if we were always as busy as when it is at Spring Carnival.
How do you maintain a viable business when millinery is so seasonal?
My shop is situated in Elsternwick where there's a big Jewish community. For religious reasons, married ladies have to wear headwear to the Synagogue as well as to lots of special religious occasions. I make hats for these women all year round. It's not a huge amount of work, but it keeps everything going. Also, the hats I export to Dubai for the World Cup need to be there in March, which would be a quiet time otherwise.
What hours do you work?
At race time I work from 8 am 'til 10 pm, and then go home to do some more work! That's generally the pattern seven days a week for three months leading up to the Melbourne Cup. At the end of that period I usually become run down and sick. If you meet a milliner in November they're generally a bit croaky!
When it's not race time I work four and a half days per week and the shop is open from 10 am 'til 5 pm.
Do you spend more time running your business than designing now? How many staff do you employ?
I probably do spend more time running the business these days.
All of my staff are part-time. I have one person working with me all year round, and three working at race time. It's important to have people who know what they're doing, you can't just grab people off the street. The three girls that work here are trained milliners, and they are part-time because they sell their own designs privately as well.
Do your clients usually know what they want or do they leave it up to you to design a piece for them?
Most decide in consultation with me. They come in to the shop with their garment and we work through what designs will suit the dress, what the client's likes and dislikes are, and what will suit their face shape. It actually takes quite a lot of time to get right. Some girls come in with a picture of what they want and we obviously can't copy someone else's design but at least it gives me an idea of what they like and what we can do along those lines.
How important has the Internet been for your business?
I have a website, but I don't sell online because all my hats are made to order. My website is a way of showing people the things that I make, so if they like a style they can contact me. It's a good promotional tool.