Life, etc

Chronicles of Chic: Mighty milliner – a tale of perseverance

By Emilie Gambade 14 December 2012

“Christian Lacroix once said, “a hat is the dot on the ‘i’; to me, this is exactly it; it finishes an outfit, it’s like an exclamation mark; it’s so small... It’s sculptural.’ Albertus Swanepoel’s stylish sculptures are often seen perched on the heads of Hollywood celebrities and dandling on the catwalks of New York Fashion Week; don’t be fooled, the road was long to make it in America. The milliner from Pretoria meets with EMILIE GAMBADE from Paris in midtown Manhattan.  

Lafayette Street; Courtney Love walks by, swathed in a long brown shapeless coat, hair hanging loose, her shadow soon swallowed by the city. Albertus Swanepoel, a tall silhouette dressed head-to-toe in black, punctuated with an impassable smile, meets this reporter at a local coffee shop, down a steep staircase. 

Seated at a round table in the darkness of a midtown Manhattan underground café, Swanepoel appears graceful despite his haute stature; it might be the softness of his voice or the light hopping in his eyes, but there is gentleness in his being, something that also shines through his creations. It could be two fuchsia and coral flowers on a straw hat, a piece of gold brocade, a cloche covered with tango-pink lace, a shweshwe ribbon crowning a wide-brimmed panama; there is grace and an undeniable distinctiveness in his elegant hats, a panache out of Africa.

Born in Pretoria, Swanepoel studied fashion design and worked for seven years in the country until he and his wife decided to leave South Africa for the US: “My big dream was to go to Paris; yet, I was so stunned by New York… it was in 1989; it was very glamorous.”  

In 1991, the glamour dims as recession hits America and the aspiring fashion designer is forced to apply his creativity and talent to a more lucrative project. “I couldn’t get a job because I had to get sponsored and this wasn’t easy; I (was) more and more depressed; my wife and I bought gloves from Italy and started decorating them with rhinestones and other precious things; it was all done by hand… It (was) very chic.” 

Fifth Avenue luxury goods store Bergdorf Goodman was suitably charmed: a $10,000 order followed, leading Swanepoel and his wife towards a growing fashion accessory commerce operating mainly in winter when temperatures drop and the demand for gloves blooms. “Because it was only a winter business, I had to do something for summer; I reluctantly went back to school and started to study millinery at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT); I interned for millinery for another seven years and was a hand-weaver over the weekend; at one point, I handled three jobs; things were really tough… It was miserable.” 

The Swanepoel couple ran their small hat company until they separated in 2000; Albertus then stumbled into a series of what he calls “disasters”, from losing his job as style editor of Martha Stewart Wedding magazine to being evicted from his Manhattan flat. Yet, no matter the bumpy road, no matter the shared Brooklyn apartment with 11 other people and a storage room where all his belongings – hat blocks, books, clothes – were flooded and destroyed in one night, there is no bitterness in Swanepoel’s tone as he tells the story of his journey to New York; instead, he is a humble man who got used to constantly adjusting the helm and accepting hiccups as part of the ride.

It was only two years after separating from his wife, in 2002, that Swanepoel met his boyfriend who happens to know the head of design at Marc Jacobs. Jacobs’s team needed hats for the collection and soon Swanepoel designed a first range, quickly followed by another one for Proenza Schouler. “First, they (Proenza Schouler) ordered five cloches; then 10; the day before the show, they ordered 25 dark cloches. A hat is the last thing designers and stylists think about; it’s like ‘oh, okay, let’s put a hat on the model!’ I worked through the night for three days and, in the end, the show looked amazing.” So much so that featured Swanepoel in its digital magazine, 25 gallery-pages of his creations and the beginning of recognition; the wheel had turned. 

“I didn’t have a collection at the time. I literally slammed a collection in a week, went to see Barney’s – they were the ultimate store to sell to – and they gave me an incredible order asking for exclusivity; that’s how my business really started.” 

In 2008, Swanepoel entered the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Vogue Fashion Fund competition; founded to “support the next generation of American fashion designers”, it is to the world of fashion what the Academy Awards are to movies; doing well there it is to walk a Vogue walk of fame. 

“They chose 10 finalists; I was one of them… you then become part of that very elite Vogue/CFDA clique. It helped my career unbelievably.” With a panel of judges including Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg and Patrick Robinson, ex-Director of GAP, it sure helps connect with the select “who is who” of the fashion family and fast-forward the climb to recognition; and if this wasn’t glamorous enough, there is always the occasional party at Wintour’s house. “They have this incredible network of business people who can help you… and of course, every year, there is a fabulous party.”

As a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund runner up, Swanepoel soon received press attention and his hats were regularly featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE or the New York Times. He also collaborated with Kate Winslet on her book The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism in which 100 celebrities wear his hat with proceeds being used to “build innovative living campuses for people with autism.” 

Another benefit of being part of the CFDA/Vogue elite is exposure; the milliner was recently in Paris, part of the CFDA/Vogue exhibition called “Americans in Paris”; 10 carefully handpicked winners of the Fashion Fund competition presenting their range rue Marbeuf. PR-ed by KCD, the public relations house for Cartier, Balmain, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs and Gap, to name but a few, the exhibition is for the 10 designers a marketing coup on RedBull; if all sales fail, they have been presented as Wintour’s protégés, her reputable eye and non-dismissible opinion like a stamp of hype embossed on the designers’ creations.  

Swanepoel can boast about covering the heads of Julia Roberts, Aretha Franklin, the über-trendy Michelle Williams and Marion Cotillard; he can brag about designing hats to crown the collections of Thakoon, Caroline Herrera and Alexander Wang or drinking cocktails with Wintour, but he surprisingly doesn’t; he has a particularly sharp understanding of his place in a highly capricious world and a compassionate look at his struggling past. 

“I was very upset the first few years… All I wanted was to be a fashion designer; it didn’t work… I always loved craft so it was easy to break into the fashion accessories world. I have a really small business, but I’m highly regarded and it’s a niche market; there are literally five of us in New York, who design hats for men and women.”

Would have it been the same in his home country? “I don’t think I would have had the same success story in South Africa; there is not the same hat culture, although one could think people should wear hats because of the sun; I feel in South Africa, it’s more  show business, it’s really ostentatious; people are trying to make a statement, which is not what I do. My hats are very much wearable.” 

Swanepoel assessment of South Africa’s weak fashion sector that is handicapped by a lack of excellence in education, the decline of the manufacturing industry and a poor access to quality fabrics, is damning in its precision. “My teacher studied in London, there are brilliant pattern makers and tailors; they share their craftsmanship; there is no one in South Africa who can pass on that sort of legacy anymore. Do people travel? Get experience? In South Africa, ego seems to be bigger than talent… If you want to play on the bigger stage, then get real.”

Despite his obvious love for his birth country –, his constant use of African textures, fabrics, bits and pieces from the mother land – Swanepoel gives a piercing review of our local fashion design landscape: “I truly think that in South Africa there is amazing advertising, there are people doing incredible furniture design, industrial design, but fashion design stinks; there is nobody who gets it right; except maybe Marianne (Fassler), or Black Coffee; everybody else either copies Europe or it looks like a Broadway musical. I don’t understand it; I’m just fascinated.

Talent without knowledge, passion and perseverance often fades; but when it all comes together, it becomes like the dot on the “i”. Essential.

“I must say, I was a little bit the same when I started and I had never been overseas; I called myself a couture designer; I went to London, to New York and I walked into Barney’s; I saw what people can do; I was depressed out of my skull. I was like, what the hell have I been thinking?”  DM


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