A Woodland Workshop with English Hatmaker Gil Fox
I have always thought of myself as a hatmaker. Milliners train to make hats to perfection. I am the antithesis of that. I find old straws and felt hoods and make them up to look as if they have already lived a life. Purposely leaving kinks and uneven edges.
I started my working life in the theatre in stage management. As a family, we had always been involved in amateur theatre, so it seems a natural progression. I loved being a part of the rehearsal process with the writers in attendance … particularly during the 1980s, when I worked at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. It is known as the writers’ theatre … and there was a great warmth within the company and a desire to produce something special, to push the boundaries.
I started selling hats at Camden Lock Market, a hive of creative makers, in the late ’80s. My friend Frances had a stall there selling the scarves she had batiked, and I would occasionally help her out. When the stall next to hers became free, she encouraged me to take it on. Quite by chance, I saw a stand nearby selling knitted hats and thought I could possibly try something similar made from fabric. That was the start.
The basic hoods from which the hats are made start from one of two shapes: A “cone” or a “capeline” (sun hat shape). I’ve had no formal training apart from a lucky meeting at an old millinery wholesaler in Soho. (Sadly, Paul Craig’s on D’Arblay Street is no longer there.) I had unsuccessfully been trying to make a proper hat out of a flat piece of fabric. Andy at the shop very kindly gave me a bit of tuition about steaming and spraying felt, and what stiffener to use on the straw. Paul Craig’s had a huge collection of vintage straws. Tightly woven parabuntals and sisals. They were like nothing I had ever seen before.
It was this beautiful straw that inspired my hat shapes. I would pin them into shape, stiffen them, then trim them with a sprig of gypsophila and a twist of grosgrain. In the early days, they were always black and even back then had a vague look of a cloche shape about them.
The hats and the business have evolved throughout the years. In the ’80s, Camden Market was a big source of inspiration, and shoppers would stop by from all over the world looking for something unusual.
I have always used vintage flowers as an embellishment. It’s the little ones I like. The scrappy little lilacs at the bottom of a box that tend to get ignored. When I can, I visit Clignancourt in Paris. There is a special shop on Rue Jules Vallès that has the widest collection of vintage clothing I have ever seen; but opposite the main store is another, selling every kind of haberdashery imaginable. As well as the hats, I now have a diffusion collection of oversized berets. Trimmed with a variety of fabrics. Grosgrain, organdy, tulle and, occasionally, vintage flowers.
I have started to offer workshops where people can get together and share stories and make a corsage or a fascinator. Over the years, I have acquired a large collection of fabrics, petals, bits of ribbon, sequins and lace. Everyone layers the fabrics and colors together in their own way and creates something unique.
Instagram has changed my life! It has become an ever-changing portfolio that I can present to people all over the world — showing where I find my inspiration as well as the final pieces. There was a time when people wouldn’t have dared buy a hat without trying it on first, but I sell to people all over the world now.
Everything is made to order to your own measurements. Apart from individual sales, I am always looking for interesting shops to sell to and designers to work with.
In 2017, whilst scrolling through Instagram, I came across a shop in Melbourne selling an eclectic mix of designer labels. We arranged to meet up in Paris whilst we were both visiting Fashion Week. Outside over a coffee, I showed them my samples. This led to a great connection with Australia that still continues. How lovely to be able to reach out virtually and then meet in person over a croissant and our mutual love of flea markets.
I have always been drawn to the dull, murky colors and the glint of sequins.
My special places
Portobello Road London
Chez Sarah (Instagram: ChezSarahVintage)
Scarlet Jones (Instagram: ScarletJonesMelbourne)
I am sure the business will continue to evolve. I have recently added a small range of vintage lingerie to sell alongside the hats. Little chiffon camisoles and satin slips.
I have also started making art to hang on the wall. I started stiffening and painting items of vintage workwear. Always in white and trying to create the effect of something encased in plaster. Building up layer upon layer until it is solid but with the fluidity of the design still there.
Rather than buy a new dress for a party, add a handmade corsage to an old one. A tattered rose, a swirl of lace, or a bit of net and sparkle is all you need.
Stacy’s take on Gil —
Gil’s hats have been known to me for years, but I didn’t know Gil. They are instantly recognizable, with their intentionally bent and tattered rims, their beautiful subtle colors and distinctive trims. Silks, wools, fine sisals, velvets — so tactile. There is both nostalgia and modernity in their design. With elements of a hat found in your grandmother’s hatbox or a vintage boutique, but so different. Gil’s hats are meant to be worn; they thrive on gentle abuse and are completely unfussy.
On the Workshop
I couldn’t help thinking about Gil’s early career when Holly, the photographer, and I arrived in Loxwood, West Sussex. Gil truly took center stage.
We rambled down a tunneled path of oak, ash and birch to her workshop, part of a beautiful country brocante fair, in a meadow. We found Gil setting up on a raised stage in a small clearing. It was enchanting. We had the feeling we were going to be entertained, and we were. The color palette set the scene. There were curtains of hats and lingerie and swags of milliner’s bouquets set against a natural backdrop of tall trees. Shards of sunlight cut through the branches. A large central table and the floor around it were piled high with the most fabulous trimmings, headbands, clips and pins to delight and inspire. And some of the participants were stars in the making, graciously agreeing to be in our photoshoot. Bravo! Thank you!
The Country Brocante Fair
Gil’s story is a lesson in taking chances. I love the story of Frances suggesting Gil take a stall, neither having any clue what she could make and sell! But instinct should always be trusted. It put Gil on a successful path that has lasted over 30 years. Her hats are as sought after and cherished today as they were with those first single sales and large orders in Camden Market.
More on Stacy:
A retail specialist in buying, styling and store concept design, Stacy Sirk has deep lifestyle roots and decades of international experience. She is renowned for her uncommon creativity, found-object expertise, and the ability to translate progressive ideas into memorable expressions. She has worked with global brands, including Restoration Hardware, Nordstrom, Terrain and Nike, and also regularly collaborates with publishers to create books and magazine features.