A new fashion photography book by Philip Treacy shows his work captured by the industry’s
most iconic image makers, says Rachel Marie Walsh
AS Galway-born hat designer Philip Treacy OBE celebrates 25 years in fashion this season, Philip Treacy: Hat Designer, an exquisite photography book on his career to date, arrives in stores next week.
“It is my life through hats, as told by some of the most amazing photographers that ever existed,” he explains. And truly these images are a feast for fashion-loving eyes, arranged ‘twixt hot-pink covers and trimmed with charming personal anecdotes, quotes from top couturiers, and hand-written notes of admiration from Cher and the flame-haired Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington.
Stunning shots by Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon, Steven Meisel, Nick Knight, Patrick DeMarchelier, Mario Testino, and many more showcase Treacy’s hats as both specific to moments in fashion history (eg, the supermodels at the peak of their influence, his haute couture collaborations with Chanel, Versace and Valentino), and timeless in their appeal.
The designer purchased the cover photo — a black and white image of Linda Evangelista in “a cocoon of cockerel feathers” — at auction. He describes the photo, shot by Irving Penn for US Vogue in 1992, as “the most precious thing I own.”
Not all of the book’s images are pulled from the pages of fashion magazines but each has an important place in the Philip Treacy story.
The designer grew up across the road from a church in Ahascragh, Co Galway. One of the early photos is of him at age seven, reaching to kiss the cheek of a local bride. Wedding watching, with all the hope and pageantry it involved, thrilled a little boy who learned to sew at five (“I was making bust points before I knew what a bust point was”) and liked to make doll’s clothes for his sister.
Marian, the eldest of his seven siblings, was the most glamorous girl in his world (he dedicates the book to her and to his partner, Stefan Bartlett). The natural beauty that surrounded them in childhood is still dear to his heart, “I always talk about where I come from like it’s Rome.”
The book is co-authored by esteemed fashion editor Marion Hume, who was at The Sunday Times in 1989 when Treacy won a Harrods hat design competition while still a Royal College of Art undergraduate.
“Fashion writers sometimes talk of ‘discovering’ creative talent but that’s ridiculous when it is being paraded right past your chair,” she recalls in her introduction.
Treacy soon met stylist Isabella Blow, who appears in increasingly extravagant designs throughout the book. A fan from the beginning, when she was a fashion assistant at Tatler, she asked him to make a headdress for her Eleanor of Aquitaine-themed wedding outfit and gave him studio space below her Belgravia home after he graduated.
The hat designer (a description he prefers to milliner) pinpoints being summoned to Paris by Karl Lagerfeld in 1991 as his big break, comparable to an American Idol win. The couture hats he created to go with the German master’s fashion during their 10-year working relationship are among the books most beautiful. Further divine creations that resulted from his work with Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Versace and particularly Valentino, are reproduced from some of the chicest magazine covers and fashion editorials of the last two decades.
Treacy has said in several interviews that you do not need to be bursting with confidence to pull off one of his hats, and indeed Hume notes that the lion’s share of his business comes from women celebrating their own lives, rather than strolling the red carpet.
Still, even a cursory flick through this book shows a strong sense of self brings a great hat to life. Sarah Jessica Parker is a theatrical presence on the red carpet at this year’s Met Gala in her Chinese-inspired headdress; model Grace Bol channels her inner King of Pop in Michael Jackson’s tour wardrobe and a Mickey Mouse-eared hat.
Some of the most powerful images in the book centre on Naomi Campbell. No doe-eyed ingenue, even stepping onto Treacy’s first catwalk in 1993 (“the temperature went up in the room”), Campbell gazes from between butterflies, through veils, and from under feathers with strength that would put Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce firmly in a corner.
Smiling in a Campbell’s can hat from Treacy’s Warhol-inspired 2003 couture collection, she makes it look as comfortable and everyday a choice as the soup itself. Beauties like Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, and Kylie are all the more gorgeous for his romantic pieces, but it is the knockout trifecta of diva, hat, and genius photographer that yields images fashion junkies will trace instantly to one of the Vogues or Vanity Fairs cluttering their attic/bookcase/unused microwave.
Treacy’s collaborations with Isabella Blow and Lee Alexander McQueen, his close friends and fashion family, constantly pushed his creative boundaries. His famous ship hat, inspired by Marie Antoinette and beloved of top fashion editors, began with one of Blow’s visits to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Among her other extraordinary requests was castle hat, complete with moat and waterfall. He did construct a hat that was “a little bit of every kind of castle; Bavarian, Medieval, with knight carved in to guard it,” that was later shot by David LaChapelle, but Treacy drew the line at water.
Several beguiling backstage shots from the late designer’s shows feature in the book. Feathers are a constant in Treacy’s work, but no matter what the materials he is “drawing with them. I treat them as one would draw with pencil.” A headdress that he calls ‘The Bird Hat’, created for Alexander McQueen’s Autumn 2008 collection, demonstrates this to dramatic effect. It was shot on Emma Watson for Harper’s Bazaar UK. Twigs sourced from a Bahamian beach spread out from the actress’s head like a sketch of a peacock.
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