In the Studio with Albertus Swanepoel
Nestled within a gritty stretch of New York’s Garment District, the studio of Albertus Swanepoel is marked by a small placard stamped with the silhouette of a long-haired man: shown in profile, he wears a belled top hat that would be the envy of The New Yorker’s Eustace Tilley and multiple characters from Alice in Wonderland. The sight of this charming character, combined with the aria of a melodiously lamenting soprano that wafts from behind the door, offers only a hint of the wonders contained—and created—within.
The jaunty figure who now acts as Swanepoel’s logo is the shadow of the South African-born milliner himself—traced in profile a few decades ago outside Notre-Dame de Paris by a prescient street artist. “He added the hat, just for fun,” says Swanepoel with a chuckle. “Then when I started my company I thought immediately of that little image.” As for the singing, it is typical background music for the studio, which opens from a small showroom into a double-height workspace. “Honestly, ninety percent of the time we listen to opera and classical,” he says. “Sometimes we play a little disco.”
Because a hat is such a small thing, it has to be impeccable. There can’t be any mistakes. It’s glaring to me if something is a quarter of an inch off—I get very finicky. I’ve tried many times to make cheap hats, and I just can’t. I think you have to respect the craft and respect the material. Albertus Swanepoel
Whether following Donizetti with Donna Summer or accenting a cap of vintage patterned felt from Switzerland with a simple grosgrain ribbon, Swanepoel thrives on juxtaposition. “Especially in the beginning, I like to put things together or try materials that might not work together,” he explains. “I challenge myself and challenge the aesthetic in that way, but it also has a lot to do with the blocks that I have.”
His collection is world-class, seeded by the serendipitous closure of a major Johannesburg factory and expanded steadily over the years, most recently with the help of eBay and one or two commissions per year from Paris-based master Lorenzo Ré, who sculpts his samba or lime-tree wood blocks with gouges, graters, and chisels for the likes of Dior and Chanel. “I’m obsessed with blocks,” says Swanepoel. “Whenever I see a block I buy it.” The studio shelves behind him are stacked high with the carved forms, each representing the foundation for a particular style, shape, and size of hat.
He reaches for a curvy, diminutive block crafted from cherry wood. “This little guy is from the ‘40s, and I’ve tried to sell it as a hat but nobody wants to buy it,” says Swanepoel, exchanging it for another favorite, comprised of interlocking parts. “This one is called a puzzle block, for when the hat is narrower at the bottom than the top. You pull out this part, and then all of the parts will come out individually, so you don’t damage the felt shape in the end.”
The work here is actually quite varied—different pieces require very different skills. And we aim for consistency, but each hat, if you really look, will be a little bit different, which is nice. Genevieve Foddy, assistant to Albertus Swanepoel
Born and raised in Pretoria, Swanepoel studied graphic design in college, immersing himself in matters of proportion, material, and color. “Back then, we still used Letraset, colored with Pantone markers, and drew with Rotring pens,” he says. “This manual way of working trained my eye a lot, and enhanced my attention to detail.”
When a classmate introduced him to the world of fashion, then glittering with figures such as Jerry Hall, Pat Cleveland, and Grace Jones, he was instantly hooked and followed his graphic design degree with one in fashion design. He apprenticed with South African designer Marianne Fassler, opened and closed a retail shop, and began making clothes for private clients. His bespoke label, Quartus Manna, was a critical and commercial success, but in 1989, he decided to start over—in Paris.
He ended up settling for, and in, New Jersey, and after a promising job didn’t pan out, began a small operation transforming “very expensive Italian leather gloves” into elaborately trimmed, slightly more expensive versions. The inevitable spring and summer glove slump led him to hats—and the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he studied with former Balenciaga milliner Janine Gallimard and then spent several years working for Lola Hats before launching his own “tiny, tiny collection, selling to about three people.”
A breakthrough came in 2005, with the cloches he created for the Proenza Schouler runway. “That had a massive impact,” recalls Swanepoel, who was soon picked up by Barneys and, in 2008, named a runner-up in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Competition. Today, ably assisted by Genevieve Foddy, he is one of a handful of milliners who retains a passion for the craft, balancing vintage materials with a modern sensibility, a maximalist bent with a love of simple shapes. “We literally make everything by hand, one by one,” he says. “It’s never mass-produced.”
I think there are people that appreciate something that’s made by hand. When they look at it, they can see that there’s some soul in it. Albertus Swanepoel
Explore another chapter in The Stories:
Portrait of a Collaboration: Deborah Ehrlich and Blue Hill