An obsession with crafting and Duchesse satin has led Albertus Swanepoel to become one of the most revered names in the art of millinery. Swanepoel (pronounced Swan-a-pool) has been featured in every major fashion magazine, most noticeably Vogue, GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has collaborated with top retail brands as well as participated in runway shows for the cream of the fashion crop—from Carolina Herrera and Proenza Schouler, to Tommy Hilfiger, Narciso Rodriguez, and Alexander Wang. Albertus, who runs his studio in Manhattan’s Fashion District, answers some questions for us.
You started out as a menswear designer and had your own label, Quartus Manna—how did you transition into millinery?
To be honest, I fell into millinery as a survival tactic because my clothing design career did not work out. I never imagined I would be doing this.
You’ve collaborated with some of the biggest brands in the retail business—Target, J.Crew, Club Monaco, and Gap, to mention a few. How difficult is it to handle the business side of what you do?
Collaborations with huge companies are a great way for me to get my name out there. I am lucky in that all I have to do is design and make prototypes, and they handle the production and logistics of the collection. The business side of my small endeavor is another matter—it’s hard and a constant struggle—cashflow being the biggest problem as I am self-funded and in a niche market. I have yet to solve this.
You were briefly the style editor for Martha Stewart Weddings. How different was it for you to work in that medium compared to designing clothes or hats?
I am a very visual person, so it was quite easy and enjoyable to transfer those skills to print. I started off studying graphic design, and I feel the principles are adaptable to any medium. I see design as a way of life, whether it’s buying a kettle or making a hat.
Some people are fortunate enough to have a person in their life that puts the wind in their sails. Would you say Anna Wintour is that person for you?
I began my relationship with Anna Wintour in 2008 when I was named the first runner up in the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund Awards. Ms Wintour has been an incredible support to me since then— more than anyone else in the industry. She also initiated my collaboration with Target. I am truly blessed to have that respect from her, and I’m forever grateful.
Your hats are available in many of the top retail stores, such as Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and various other elite boutiques in New York City. How did you get your foot in those doors?
It is really difficult to get into a major department store. Buyers look at hundreds of lookbooks per season of designers who are trying to get in their stores. When I started my millinery career many years ago I was lucky in that Style.com did a huge article on me. As soon as that came out, Barneys, Henri Bendel, and Bergdorf Goodman all approached me to see my work.
Who and what inspires you?
South Africa, where I grew up, certainly inspires me. And of course the street fashion of New York, as well as the energy of the city. I am also a big opera lover and the spectacle of music, sets, costumes, and the larger-than-life drama I find truly inspirational.
If you could make a hat for anyone in the world, who would that person be?
To choose one person would be difficult! The top three on my list would be Cecil Beaton, Queen Elizabeth, and the Marchesa Luisa Casati.
What is your favorite fabric to work with and where do you source your materials?
I love Duchesse silk satin, felt, and grosgrain ribbons. The infrastructure for my craft is diminishing, so it’s increasingly difficult to find materials. Most of my felts come from the Czech Republic;
the different straws I get from Ecuador, Switzerland, and Japan. Now there are only one or two importers, so all the milliners get their materials from the same sources. The challenge is to make it one’s own.
What is the best part about your job?
Making the hats, packing them in boxes, and sending them out to the customer. As long as I am creating, I am happy. I am very much a craft person, whether I am making a hat or a Christmas card for someone.
You sound like Sweet Paul! Thank you for chatting with us, Albertus.
For more information about Albertus and his millinery, please visit albertusswanepoel.com. You can also nd him on Instagram @albertus_swanepoel.