Hats off to Pittsburgh's milliners

The word “millinery” is not often heard — or even known by many. But the art of making hats is having a renaissance.

Society is in the thick of hat season, with garden parties, polo matches and weddings in full swing and the Kentucky Derby and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s annual hat luncheon over this past weekend.

Once considered old-fashioned or even matronly, finishing an outfit with a stylish topper is resurging, particularly among younger women, largely sparked by the parade of hats and sculpture-esque fascinators spotted at the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William a few years ago.

From across the pond to here in Pittsburgh, milliners are helping women — and men — find a hat that suits their personal style. Here is a sample of them based across the region.

Janis Burley Wilson, Janis B. et Al Millinery

Janis Burley Wilson of Monroeville has been designing hats for almost 20 years.

“I always loved wearing them. It’s a lost art,” she said.

Back then she met a man while traveling to and from New York who had been a milliner, and he taught her the old techniques of using hat blocks and millinery sewing machines.

She made small collections for Henri Bendel in New York and one-of-a-kind pieces for The Hat Shop in Soho, where she still sends some of her hats.

These days, all of her hats are custom creations that she churns out in between her work for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

“It’s like an artist painting a landscape or creating a piece of art,” she said. “You don’t do it twice.”

She’s collected more than 175 hat blocks that she uses in her work, which she thinks stands out for its interesting use of color. She also has had an increase in requests for men’s hats, she said. Custom hats can range from about $150 to several hundred dollars.

“They catch your attention, but not too off the wall that the hat is wearing the customer,” she said. “The customer is wearing the hat.”

Information: Janis B. et Al Millinery on Facebook.

Theresa Baughman Millinery

Theresa Baughman’s path to hat making started by accident. A couple of years ago, the Latrobe native was studying audio engineering at Columbia College in Chicago and had to take a class outside of her major to fulfill an elective requirement.

“I took hat making on a whim and absolutely loved it,” she said.

After that she switched gears and transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where she is a junior art major with a concentration in sculpture, and on the side designs hats.

The techniques she learns as an art student influence her hat creations, she said.

“I try to keep them fresh and fun and architectural.”

She does custom work from her home in Bloomfield, and all of her hats are sewn by hand — no glue and no sewing machines. As a result, requests take at least two weeks to complete and tend to be priced between $150-$300. After college, she hopes to turn the fledgling business into a profession.

“I think it’s pretty exciting because lots of people want to have all different styles,” she said. “A hat can change your whole experience. It’s like wearing makeup. It can change your whole face.”

Information: tbaughman.com.

B.J. Herr and Eileen Sieff Stroup, Herr & Ei

Eileen Sieff Stroup spent about 17 years in the movies — not on the screen but behind the scenes, designing costumes and serving as a wardrobe supervisor.

“In my early days of costuming, I did lots of millinery because I love the craftiness aspect, and my skills lend themselves to hand sewing and that sort of work,” she said.

She lent her talents to films such as “Hope Floats,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and the period movie “Almost Heroes” with Chris Farley and Matthew Perry. Now she has teamed her talents with those of seamstress B.J. Herr, and the pair started the design business Herr & Ei in Butler about a year ago.

Ms. Herr takes the lead on custom work on gowns and costumes, while her partner does the bulk of the millinery tasks. Currently they’re working on hats and costumes for a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The Internet has improved their ability to get top-of-the-line, interesting materials for hats and track trends overseas. They set up private Pinterest pages to swap ideas with clients. Sprucing up a hat with new ribbons or flowers can start at about $20, with a complete custom job ranging up to about $200 on average.

Information: Herr & Ei on Facebook.

Gina Mazzotta Millinery

A few years ago Gina Mazzotta had a fashion need to fill. She was going to a polo match and needed a hat but couldn’t find something that was chic and modern without aging her.

“I decided to make one myself,” she said. “It got a lot of attention, and I realized I really liked doing it.”

Ms. Mazzotta has a background in visual merchandising and worked in New York for Dolce & Gabbana before moving back to Pittsburgh to take a job with Saks Fifth Avenue. She combined her eye for style with what she learned from Ohio-based milliner Amy Hamilton, and Gina Mazzotta Millinery was born.

She takes shopping trips to New York to pick up materials and designs a small collection of samples. People can pick what they like, and she’ll personalize it. She also welcomes custom orders that usually range from about $170-$495.

She describes her aesthetic as “classic with a modern touch,” she said. “I am very inspired by like the 1920s and 1930s, that kind of look, but I try to keep it modern.”

Ms. Mazzotta also contributes hats to philanthropic causes. She designed seasonal “Fighting Pretty” hats that she donates 20 percent of their sales to a nonprofit by the same name founded by her friend Kara Skaflestad, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was in her 20s. The organization provides women battling cancer with care packages that include beauty products, scarves and other inspirational items.

Information: www.ginamazzotta.com.

Jennifer L. Copeland Millinery

Finding a fancy hat can be tricky. Find one that suits your style and fits well — an even greater fashion feat.

To help curb this challenge, Jennifer Copeland started making vintage-inspired hats with an air of romanticism that include an adjustable drawstring to make them smaller.

She earned a degree in art education and studied metal arts, an expertise that informs her hat making.

She started with original hats but found some people wanted to be able to purchase something on the spot, so she introduced a ready-to-wear line. She also offers men’s hats. Custom orders tend to start at about $125, with the average specialty hat priced at $225-$250.

Events and weddings are among the most popular reasons she gets requests, she said, although beach hats also are growing in popularity. Her pieces have been stocked at Carl W. Herrmann Furs and 3G Gallery, both Downtown.

Information: www.copelandmillinery.com.

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @SaraB_PG. Blogs at www.post-gazette.com/stylebook.

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