If you want to get ahead and get noticed, get a hat. The old saying still rings true in the millinery atelier near Lucerne’s Pilatusplatz.
Caroline Felber hardly ever leaves home without a hat – perhaps just a couple of times a year. And indeed, she and her crew would have no problem creating a hat for any day and occasion.
Felber is the owner of the Caroline hat boutique. In addition, she oversees Switzerland’s sole workshop dedicated to training young people in the art of millinery.
Across Switzerland, there are only eight to ten apprenticeships available in the field; Felber provides six of them.
“I’ve always thought it would be a pity if this profession died out. It’s such a lovely and multi-facetted career,” Felber told swissinfo.ch. Yet when she began learning the trade in the early 1980s, hats were heading out of fashion.
“The clients were 60 and older – nobody younger ever came into the shop where I trained. But things have changed tremendously over the years.”
It used to be that the felt came in just a few basic colours – with red considered to be a pretty wild choice. Today, a visit to the Caroline shop proves that anything goes – even red felt roses atop a chartreuse cloche.
Meanwhile, celebrities help set the latest trends. Felber credits singer Justin Timberlake with popularising narrow-brimmed fedoras.
“Some people say that nobody wears hats, but if you look out the window and do a quick head count you’ll see that it’s at least three out of ten,” said Felber, pointing out the window.
Little shop of wonders
Inside the workshop there are more than 300 wooden forms used for shaping headwear. Some have the familiar appearance of a cowboy hat or a beret, while others are more unusual.
Then there are the “metal-heads” – head and hat-shaped aluminium forms that plug in and heat up, serving as a clever alternative to a regular iron. A glance at the fabric-coated electrical cables indicates how old they are.
“A good electrician comes in handy when it’s time to repair something,” Felber said with a smile. Some of her other equipment is also antique; for example, the 100-year-old sewing machine used to stitch coil after coil of braided straw into a summer hat.
Felber is especially proud of her collection of genuine straw plaiting, stored carefully in large drawers according to colour and width.
“Imagine women in aprons, sitting and chatting while braiding thousands of kilometres of straw plaiting. Nobody does it anymore,” Felber said, noting the exception of a single company in canton Aargau. These days, it’s much easier to come by synthetic versions.
Of course, straw isn’t the only hat material available. Felber stocks everything imaginable, including felt, silk, velvet, leather, fur, and even vintage men’s suit material from the 1970s.
Then there are the drawers full of ribbon, lace, beads, brooches, feathers and silk flowers – an inventory that Felber has collected steadily over the years.
Head for business
It was a coincidence that brought Felber into the industry. Originally, she was interested in becoming either a goldsmith, a dressmaker or an interior decorator – but then she came across an article about the millinery career and was intrigued.
Now 45, Felber has had her own millinery business for 25 years. The year 2011 also marks the tenth anniversary of the foundation that she initiated to support the apprentices’ workshop.
According to Felber, a good milliner needs to enjoy sewing and fashion while keeping in mind that it’s a service branch with long hours.
You have to want to learn a handicraft and not just be a designer, she tells her recruits before they sign up for a three-year apprenticeship.
When swissinfo.ch visited the workshop, the trainees were engaged in a variety of projects.
Laura Höylä, 20, had already trained as a dressmaker but wanted to learn an additional trade.
“Millinery really appealed to me because of the handicraft involved,” said Höylä as she worked on the brim of a sage green felt hat.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Jasmin Rigert was piecing together a black rabbit fur hat.
“It’s a very varied career – you can be really creative. The work is totally different in winter and in summer, plus there’s such a range of occasions to make a hat for,” Rigert said.
Felber doesn’t have a strict curriculum; rather, she quickly sees where the trainees’ abilities are and takes it from there. What they create depends partly on the season.
It takes from two to 15 hours to make a hat, depending on how involved it is and the materials used.
Prices range from SFr30-600 – with an atelier-made hat starting at SFr200 ($209).
Felber’s clientele is as varied as her selection of hats: everyone from drug addicts needing a cap repaired to ladies looking for a special occasion topping.
“A big trend in recent years has been hair accessories such as headbands with feathers and beads,” Felber said.
Maria Büeler Zischler is a repeat customer; even her wedding hat was a Caroline creation.
“I am a big fan of Caroline’s art work. She is very creative and she understands exactly what I need! Usually I go there with the dress I need a hat for and then she designs it,” Zischler told swissinfo.ch
Zischler, the director of the Alden Hotel Splügenschloss in Zurich, owns about 50 hats: “I think it adds that little extra to any outfit.”
Felber has developed a knack for matching people with the right hat.
“When people come in I already have an idea of what would suit them. I ask what the occasion is, and often the first hat I pick ends up being the one they take,” she said.
Over the years, Felber has encountered only two clients who were tricky to fit.
“I’m sure that everybody can wear a hat – it’s just a matter of practice. Earlier, everybody wore a hat – and they weren’t any more or less attractive than we are.”
In May 2001, Felber established the “Hut” (hat) foundation in Lucerne. It has about 100 enthusiastic members who pay annual dues to support the apprentices’ workshop.
Each year, it brings in about SFr5,000, which contributes to courses and equipment.
Twice a year, the Caroline boutique hosts a “chapero” (drinks party) to introduce the latest collections over cocktails.
Terms and tips
Technically, a hat maker creates men’s hats, whereas a milliner specialises in hats for women.
Lucerne milliner Caroline Felber says that the correct size is key when choosing a hat. It has to sit well, neither pressing on the head nor falling too loosely over the ears. Proportion in relation to the size and shape of the head is also important.
Felber says that she can tell right away what would suit people, and she encourages them to be adventurous.
“A lot of people might be sceptical until they have it on, and then they’re surprised at how good it looks – saying they wouldn’t have thought to try that one.”