Crown Prince

From the Summer 2014 issue.

Philip Treacy, milliner extraordinaire, by Deirdre McQuillan .

The extraordinary creations of the celebrated Galway-born master milliner Philip Treacy, consistently make headlines and were once fittingly described as site-specific sculptures. From a two-foot-high 18th-century French galleon in full sail constructed from feathers and black satin to surreal butterfly pillboxes and a gilded ram’s head in Florentine straw, his hats are known for their drama, originality and flamboyance. Treacy’s chapeaux have adorned the heads of the world’s most famous women from royalty to rock stars and society queens earning him innumerable awards and the nickname Crown Prince. The designer, who started sewing at the age of seven at home in Ahascragh, is credited with having revived interest in a forgotten craft and encouraged a new generation of young milliners to give vent and form to their wildest ideas.

In 1987, while a final-year student in NCAD whose graduate collection was inspired by the Duchess of Windsor, the twenty-one year old was the college’s sole millinery student. Outstanding technique, inventive forms and obsession with perfection remain emblematic of his work and though many might consider the borders between fashion and art pliable, he has always maintained that hat-making is an artisan craft, laborious and time consuming. ‘Feathers are to hat making what flour is to bread making,’ he once said. ‘I can draw with feathers. I can make them dance. Hat feathers suggest weightlessness, allure, delicacy and the primitiveness of power.’ With the zealotry of an impassioned and demanding craftsman, he spends hours perfecting every shape he makes. There is fearlessness in his work.

Having graduated from NCAD, he was awarded an MA scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London – ‘the most exciting moment of my life’ – after which his witty, sophisticated confections started to attract attention. His career began in the basement studio of 69 Elizabeth Street in London where his most fervent champion was the influential stylist Isabella Blow. There he started collaborations with international designers like Valentino, Chanel and Alexander McQueen, his millinery becoming an essential part of their couture collections.

Five times winner of the British Designer Award, he staged his first fashion show – all black hats – in 1993 and a year later opened his own shop. In 2000 at the age of thirty-one working from his then studio in Belgravia, he presented his first couture show in Paris, the first milliner ever to do so at the invitation of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. This millennium collection based on orchids with futuristic straw based shapes covered in silk velvet made use not just of traditional millinery materials like feathers, ribbons and organzas, but also newer textiles like metal and ultra violet fibres.

The exhibition ‘When Philip Met Isabella’ showcasing the hats he made for Isabella Blow was exhibited in the Design Museum in London in 2002 and later went on a world tour. In Dublin its run at Collins Barracks in 2005 drew a record attendance of over 43,000 people before transferring to the US. He was awarded a Fine Arts doctorate from UCD in 2006 and a year later, in a first for an Irish designer, an OBE for his services to the British fashion industry. It was yet another feather in the cap so to speak for a designer who continues to win many accolades for his work.

He now operates from a spacious studio in Battersea where he fashioned the hat of gold leaf feathers tipped with crystal worn by Camilla Parker Bowles for her wedding to Prince Charles. Later he created thirty-six hats for the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William, which he described as one of the most exciting periods of his career. The controversial pink bow headpiece sported by Princess Beatrice at the wedding was later sold at auction for £81,000. During this period he also designed glassware and furniture and was appointed design director of the G Hotel in Galway while continuing collaborations with fashion designers.

His most recent fashion show after a twelve-year absence from the London catwalk was a further milestone in the career of this freewheeling Irish talent. Opened by Lady Gaga in the Royal Courts of Justice, it featured sensational millinery headpieces on an army of black models dressed in Michael Jackson’s stage wardrobe.

Flamboyant feather and gold affairs, crystal studded fedoras, miniature carousels and a moving illuminated wire cage, left the audience spellbound. ‘Fashion is about illusion’ says Treacy. ‘I entertain visually – hats are about magic, but they are also about emotion. They make the heart beat faster’.

Deirdre McQuillan is fashion editor of The Irish Times.