JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
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LYDEN: In 2011, Irish milliner Philip Treacy fascinated millions who saw the 36 different hats he created for Kate Middleton's royal wedding. That's score one for Ireland this St. Patrick's Day weekend. Perhaps you'll recall Princess Beatrice's modernist spidery creation, the one with the undulating tentacles.
A royal wedding is a far cry from Treacy's birthplace. He's from County Galway, Ireland, in a rural village of about 500 people. His father was a baker, his mother a homemaker, and Treacy was one of eight kids. Even the feathers from his mother's chickens made the way into his earliest designs.
PHILIP TREACY: I was just, as a child, very different from the others and didn't really care what they thought because, you know, a child doesn't really have any inhibitions. So you gain your inhibitions later. I was interested in everything that everybody else was not interested in.
LYDEN: You had a sewing machine, right?
TREACY: Yes. My mother had a sewing machine that I was very much not allowed on and couldn't lift. But when she would feed our chickens at the end of the garden, when she would be, like, far up the garden, I'd sort of quickly get the machine out, stagger over to collect it, take it to a table, get it working. I just thought it was the most amazing thing that this little needle went up and down and stuck two pieces of material together. And I just thought it was my version of having an iPod.
LYDEN: When did you inter-switch from working on clothes to hats? Was there a particular moment? I mean, you went to school, the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.
TREACY: Yes. My career in hats started when I was a student at the National College of Arts in Dublin, and I bought an old straw hat in a junk market and took it apart and remade what I thought a hat could look like. And I had a tutor at college. And I said, oh, I've made a hat. And she said, well, can you bring it in? I'd like to see it. So I brought it in, and she bought it. So I thought: That's a result. And so I haven't really stopped from there, really.
LYDEN: This book takes us through the early days. I mean, you have a very small studio, and it sounds like a lot of fun, and then progressively, you know, you get into bigger buildings, although I love the pictures of, you know, how messy everything was. You have a house model who's always there for you to try things on. Would you walk me through a fitting? I mean, in my dreams, I'm walking into Philip Treacy's studio.
TREACY: When people come and visit me and have a hat made, it's a little bit like visiting psychiatrist, but they don't actually realize that. So I'm just really trying to learn from a brief conversation with them about just anything in general - how far they want to go, where they definitely don't want to go with their head or their hat.
So generally, I am trying to make that person happy and feel good and look good for that ultimate occasion in their lives because in this part of the world, where we come from, hats are part of, you know, ultimate occasions in one's life. And I've been lucky to be involved in those from, you know, royal weddings or, you know, when Madonna went to the - performed at the Super Bowl, I made that.
So, you know, it is part of ultimate moments in people's lives. Hats are part of, you know, a global culture because every culture all over the world has a history of hats, including America. I mean, America brought us the baseball cap.
TREACY: It's one of my favorite hats.
LYDEN: I like a baseball cap. But when you think back historically, people wore around the world a lot more fantastical headgear than many people wear today. I sometimes wonder why.
TREACY: You know, hats have changed meaning. At one time, hats were a conformist accessory when you conformed, and now, they're an accessory of rebellion. So that's why young people are attracted to the quirkiness of a hat because they like to be interested in something or wear something that their parents aren't interested in. I mean, if you look on TV, you know, all those kids on MTV, they've got, you know, hats with some description on, or ethnic communities in America, they wear hats. The policeman wears a hat, fireman wears a hat, waitress wears a hat sometimes. That's a part of our lives. You know, they're not going to disappear or go away.
As long as we have a head, there will always be hats of some description because human beings have always decorated their heads in some way, whether it's a ribbon or a hair band or, you know, the way they do their hair. It's human nature. Otherwise, we'd look, you know, Neanderthal.
LYDEN: I'm speaking with Irish milliner Philip Treacy, whose haute couture fantastic hats are chronicled in a new book with photograph Kevin Davies. Can I ask you just a little bit about your relationship with the late designer Alexander McQueen?
LYDEN: And I don't want to get into...
LYDEN: ...anything painful. When the late designer's retrospective was staged at the Metropolitan Museum, did you and Alexander have a similar vision, would you say?
TREACY: Yes, we did. I - we worked together for all his career. He had a fearlessness about design and fashion that was admirable, and I have the same fearlessness about hats. It's very easy to look at one of my hats and think, who is this crazy person making this crazy hat? But I am trying to make elegant and beautiful hats, and so did he.
Our angle was beauty, but modern beauty. And we live in the 21st century - or he lived and I still live - and that's what one's job is when one works in design and fashion today because I should not be making 1950s hats because we're not living in 1950. We're living in 2013. So I'm attracted to the future. I believe in the future. We need the future. Otherwise, we'd look the same.
LYDEN: I must talk about the future in the person of Kate Middleton and the royal wedding. You designed 36 hats for the wedding, and I think it's how a lot of Americans will know your work. What was that like for you as a designer?
TREACY: Oh, it was the most exciting - one of the most projects I've ever worked on because usually, I'm working for entertainers or designers, and there's an unreality to that, which is interesting because it's the world of illusion. Whereas, what was exciting about this event was it was real people. It wasn't models. And everybody was going to the same event. So it was like approaching a military operation so that nobody wore the same hat, nobody had the same color, nobody had the same styling. And it was an infectious experience because everybody was very excited. It was the biggest, greatest show on Earth that day.
LYDEN: I want to ask before we close, have you ever had the occasion to make a hat for your mother after all these years?
TREACY: Well, my mom died 20 years ago. And the only person I never made a hat for - and it's very interesting since you asked that was my mother - because my mother didn't really - she preferred to make her own hats.
LYDEN: Hmm. She did?
TREACY: Can you believe that?
LYDEN: Well, that's because as a mother, you know, it just has to be something her own stuff.
TREACY: Yes. She was quite - I mean, she was intrigued by everything, but she didn't want one of my hats. She made her own.
LYDEN: That's milliner Philip Treacy. His hats are the subject of a new book by photographer Kevin Davies. Be sure to check some of them out on our website at npr.org. And, Philip, it has really been fun. Thank you so much.
TREACY: Thank you very much.
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