Hats off to this talented milliner

CROWNING GLORIES: Katherine Elizabeth at Royal Ascot
CROWNING GLORIES: Katherine Elizabeth at Royal Ascot

Milliner and Tunbridge Wells resident Katherine Elizabeth tells Eileen Leahy about her eponymous business Katherine Elizabeth Millinery, what it’s like designing for celebrities and why the summer is her busiest time…


What made you want to become a milliner?

Whilst studying at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design I was interested in fashion but I also loved art and sculpture. At that time I thought hats were just something you just put on your head to keep warm! That all changed though when a designer from Frederick Fox – milliner to the late Queen Mother – came to do a talk. She brought a hat along that she had created from rocks! She had cast the block using them and then added sinamay, which is widely used for blocking hats, on top. It was like a lightbulb moment for me and that’s when I realised hats are pieces of art – or sculptures you can wear. Going into this creative realm was perfect for me because I have a 3D mind and always wanted to make clothes more sculptural. I decided from then on that I would do my final collection in millinery and not clothes.


You worked under the famous milliner Stephen Jones upon graduating. What was this experience like?

It was amazing! I remember him ringing me up and telling me that I could come in for an interview. I was shocked… the legendary Stephen Jones had just called me! I had a great time and met Noel Stewart – who is now a famous milliner – whilst there. We worked on the couture table making hats for clients – it was fantastic to be in this world. Stephen was often off working on collections for the Dior label, which at the time was under the creative eye of John Galliano. I remember one evening he came downstairs with some hats for the John Galliano Shop. He said: “Right, everyone, stop what you are doing and work on these!” I loved every minute of it!


Did you work for any other designers during this period?

I worked for Catherine Delaney who made a lot of creations for theatre and also fashion. She was based near Waterloo and taught me a lot. I am very grateful to her for teaching me. We had lots of fun making hats together! One day I would be stiffening felt for hats for a theatre show, the next we would be working on a creation for a client. On top of that we created some pieces for London Fashion Week.


When did you launch your own eponymous business?

After working for Stephen Jones and Catherine Delaney I decided to set up on my own.

I moved back to Somerset, where I am from, in order to be able to launch my business.

I went to the Prince’s Trust for help and they mentored me and gave me a grant. This really helped at the beginning because I was then able to buy fabrics, sinamay, blocks and a computer. This grant also helped me get my first piece in a national magazine. I took a photo of a hat on a white background and Harper’s Bazaar featured it on their shopping page. After that I had a number of clients ringing up to order hats. In my mid-twenties I moved back to London. I thought, if I am going to make it, I might as well be in London. Once I had moved, I started my Millinery House Events business. This involved me teaching groups of women how to make hats over afternoon tea and champagne in lovely hotels. This really helped to fund my business and bring in extra money to buy fabrics and offered the opportunity for me to experiment with hats.


Were there any challenges in terms of setting up your own company?

I would say money and time. You need time to make and money to live, so I worked part-time when I established my business until it could look after itself.


What have been the highlights over the course of your career so far?

I would say working with the indie band Noisettes. Making a collection with them was just great and seeing my hats worn on the lead singer Shingai Shoniwa at Glastonbury was fabulous! Recently, one of my hats was worn by Johannes Radebe from Strictly Come Dancing on the Graham Norton Show. I was also asked to create some hats for the designer Jasper Garvida for a show he was doing at the National History Museum. I just love the industry I am in. I get to make hats, go to lovely places, meet fantastic people and my shop overlooks the Thames in London as it is in the Oxo Tower. I am very lucky.


Your hats have been worn by the likes of Dita Von Teese and Lily Allen, and have also appeared in shows such as Downton Abbey. Can you tell us a bit more about all this?

I was asked to make a hat for Dita so I chose to create a small cream bonnet out of parasisal straw. It had an emerald green trim and lining to match the colour of her eyes. I also made a hat for Lily Allen and received a lovely message from her when she received it. I taught the cast of Downtown Abbey how to make hats over a Champagne afternoon tea in a beautiful hotel to help promote the new series of the show. That really was a great day!


Are there any celebrities/public figures you would love to create a hat for and if so who?

I would love to make one for Lady GaGa and The Princess of Wales. Those two would be a dream
come true.


Where does your inspiration come from in terms of your designs?

Nature and architecture are my inspirations. I grew up on a farm but also love architecture and sculpture. My dad was a carpenter after being a farmer so he has a 3D mind. He’s always been fantastic at creating things and my mum was always good at art and drawing, she is now a fabulous painter.


How long is the average hat-making process, or does it vary according to each job?

It varies from one day to a week. When a client wants a hat, I like 4 to 6 weeks to make it so we have time to order in fabrics, mock up the design, show the client and finish the hat as well as anything else that needs to be done in-between.


Which are your most popular events to design for?

I love Royal Ascot. It is my favourite time of year as I can be a bit more sculptural with my designs. The rest of the year is mostly weddings and other horse racing events such as Cheltenham. I also make for various fashion designers’ catwalk shows which I adore but I do relish the chance to be more adventurous occasionally.


How many are in your team and do you operate from Tunbridge Wells or London?

I mostly operate from London but I also do a lot from Tunbridge Wells. I have a studio in my home from which I work too. I really must work with more designers and dressmakers here, there is so much talent in the area! I am a member of the Tunbridge Wells Mums in Business Networking Group. I joined this group when I first moved to Tunbridge Wells so that I could meet like-minded businesswomen for support in the area. I don’t have any kids but they let me join anyway! It’s been invaluable.


What do you like about being based here in Tunbridge Wells?

I live with my husband and our two cats, Reggie and Bella. Reggie has become quite famous in my millinery and business academy as he made an appearance on the local BBC and ITV news as part of the coverage of my business around The Coronation and Royal Ascot. I really like living in Tunbridge Wells. The town is
near but you also have a lot of green spaces and countryside. The Pantiles are another reason
I love it here; they boast some really beautiful architecture.


For more information visit katherineelizabethmillinery.com or drop in and see her in her shop which is located at 103 Oxo Tower Wharf, Barge House Street, London, SE1 9PH

Share this article

Recommended articles


Please enter a search term below.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter