Tips for fine hat shopping

The task: Find two unique, fashion-forward hats for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s 16th annual hat luncheon at Highland Park. The challenge: Do it within a few weeks and on a budget of $150.

Post-Gazette SEEN editor Natalie Bencivenga and style editor Sara Bauknecht share their different approaches to hunting down a hat that fit their fancy and tips for hat shopping:

Natalie Bencivenga: Going custom

Having a custom hat made is a truly special experience. Local milliner Gina Mazzotta worked with me to create a modern twist on a classic favorite: the fascinator.

At the first meeting, Ms. Mazzotta came to my apartment (yes, that’s right, she does hat house calls!) to discuss the style and fabric options. She brought samples of ready-to-wear hats, fabrics and ideas for what we could do. I wanted to wear something more sculptural and modern — an idea that she ran with — and I showed her possible dresses I wanted to pair with it.

Ms. Mazzotta’s style is tres chic, and we narrowed down the choices to one we thought would fit best with the modern style of the fascinator.

She had only about a week to whip up this custom creation with limited materials at her disposal because of the tight deadline. She texted me throughout the process, showing me what she was working on and how the hat was coming together. She managed to complete my hat with a couple of days to spare.

She personally delivered it in a white box complete with a bow. As I unwrapped it, I couldn’t help but think how unique this experience is in today’s fast-paced world. To have something handcrafted, a one-of-a-kind piece (especially for a fashion lover like myself), is a momentous occasion and worth celebrating.

— Natalie Bencivenga

Read more about Natalie’s custom hat experience on her blog, To be Seen, at

Sara Bauknecht: Boutique browsing around the ’Burgh

I’m not much of a hat person. Even when it’s cold outside I resist. But I was excited to step outside of my style comfort zone.

I didn’t know what I was looking for — or even where to look for it — but like all good fashion finds I was stopped in my tracks when I spotted it.

A colorful display of derby-style hats and fascinators by the brand Scala caught my eye in the window of Serendipity boutique in Market Square. At first I was attracted to a couple of whimsical fascinators but quickly learned that what you love on the shelf might not make your heart leap when it’s on your head — and vice versa. Owners Kim and Pete Coppola encouraged me to take as long as I needed to try on as many as I wanted and helped with feedback. The hat I selected wasn’t a favorite until I tried it on — then it was “the one.” The handmade topper is bright pink, one of my favorite colors, trimmed with black. It’s dressed up with a bow and tinged with subtle feathers. And the best part: It was well below $100.

This is the third spring Serendipity has stocked specialty hats. Several boutiques across Pittsburgh also carry upscale styles during derby and hat luncheon season. One that specializes exclusively in hats and head scarves is Asbury Fine Hats in Squirrel Hill. Jessica Sacks opened the storefront about two years ago and offers casual hats (usually $35-$50) and fancier ones ($90-$280). The shop is open by appointment and welcomes shoppers to browse at their leisure or even bring some clothes with them to try on in the dressing room so they can see the complete look with the hat. Ms. Sacks also helps women who’ve lost their hair to chemotherapy find comfortable, attractive head scarves and caps.

And then there’s always vintage. If I hadn’t found something in a boutique, I planned to try my luck at Hey Betty! or Eons in Shadyside.

— Sara Bauknecht

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