Modistes let fashion go to their heads
Both chapelier (hatter/hatmaker) and modiste (milliner) are métiers d’art, and the differences between them are subtle: the chapelier works primarily with felt, straw and fabric and produces classic hats for both men and women; while the modiste sees hats as art objects and tends to make unique pieces, usually for women.
The chapelier also makes each entire hat (both the brim and body) from a single piece of material but no such constraints exist for the modiste.
Some artisans work as chapelier-modistes, to do both types of work.
To work with hats, you need to have a lively interest in the world of fashion, whether your target market is high-end or mass consumer. Like most métiers d’art, it combines the general skills of creativity and a sense of colour with an ability to work in minute detail.
You also need an instinctive sense of volume to complement the measurements you will take of your clients’ heads. Finally, particularly because many of your customers are likely to be both wealthy and demanding, you need to be good at building a rapport.
Most modistes work independently, usually in their own workshops, to make hats for individual clients, fashion designers, and for the performing arts. Because millinery is so linked to fashion, it is constantly evolving as new trends emerge. Chapeliers can work independently or in a more commercial setting. There are about 200 modistes in France.
Every town boasted at least one hatter and one milliner until the 1950s slump and there has since been a general decline in hat-wearing, with cheaper competition from the Far-East, making life more difficult for chapeliers in particular, but also for modistes.
However, interest in hats has steadily risen since the start of the 21st century, but it remains a tough market.
Those wanting to enter the profession can work for a diploma called a Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (CAP) in métiers de la mode: chapelier- modiste at one of three insitutions.
The chapellerie section of the Lycée des Métiers Camille Claudel in Lyon, takes 12 students each year for the one-year CAP, with work experience abroad a possibility.
The Lycée Professionnel Les Sapins in Coutances, Normandy, also offers the specialist CAP over a single year.
In Paris, the Lycée Octave Feuillet offers a two-year CAP in mode et chapellerie.
Those not wanting a diploma can take a year to study for the more unusual Formation Complémentaire d’Initiative Locale (FCIL) in arts de la mode broderie chapellerie fleurs plumes, which is currently offered at the Lycée Octave Feuillet.
Otherwise, numerous short courses offer either a general introduction or an insight into new techniques.
A good place to start is the Atelier Musée du Chapeau in Chazelles-sur-Lyon, in the Loire department, where a vast array of training programmes is available throughout the year and the museum is worthwhile.
As with all métiers d’art, work experience is indispensable before you start out.
Hats should add a ‘touch of elegance’
Modiste Brigitte Varnier of Atelier B in Haute-Normandie says that if she does not “add a touch of elegance, then I’ve failed”.
Saying there is no such thing as someone who does not look good in a hat, she adds “inside your head you have to want to wear a hat, to look and feel good when you put it on”.
Becoming a modiste was a career change for Ms Varnier, who was an export manager. She had wanted to be creative when younger but her parents advised going into business.
She remembered marvelling at the hats in the window of the modiste in Rouen when she was young, so when she looked to change career hat-making seemed logical... plus the Rouen modiste was about to retire, leaving an opening.
She studied for a CAP in hat-making at the Ecole Mod’ Art in Paris, taking three days a week over a year in a class with 12 students from all over the world, which made for “a stimulating cultural exchange”.
Atelier B is “in the middle of nowhere” and Ms Varnier said she felt that buying a hat was a sufficiently unusual act that people would find her if they needed her. “There are just three modistes in Haute-Normandie, so people are willing to go off the beaten track.”
Plus, when anyone wears one of her creations, they act as a walking advert, drawing people in through word-of-mouth.
Four in five of her hats are made-to-measure. “I love this aspect of my work. You listen to what the customer wants, you look at them, you give them advice, and hopefully they will go away feeling good when they wear their hat”.
Hats average about five hours’ work to produce, although some take far longer, particularly when the material has to be dyed. Prices, too, are surprisingly affordable given each piece is individual:
“Wedding hats cost between €150 and €250 each. I try to keep my prices down so the hats remain accessible, and one of the ways I do this is by cutting out the middle man”.
Today the majority of hats are bought for weddings, meaning a seasonal working pattern.
“I start getting the orders in February, but am at my busiest between April and September. This week I have to deliver nine hats between Monday and Thursday. It’s Saturday and I haven’t started on any of them.
“But working under pressure suits me”.
What advice would she give to anyone wanting to become a modiste? “Do the proper training! You want to be certain you will be able to satisfy customers’ demands, no matter what the techniques involved”.
She says publicity is important, as is a willingness to work with artisans in other fields.