If you, like me, are fascinated by the fascinators sported by Kate Middleton and friends, if you’ve ever swooned over the exotic creations actresses wore with such ease and attitude in old movies, then you’ll be happy to know that even here in the U.S. in the 21st Century, hat-making isn’t an obsolete profession. Recently, I met a lovely, funny, and talented practitioner of the millinery arts—Jennifer Hoertz—at a makers market in upstate New York and was completely enchanted by her devotion to this traditional craft.
I have been hearing people say hats are coming back since I started my business in 1993, and it is in the past year that I can say I finally agree.
Hoertz, the mother of two based in Brewster, NY, is a clever powerhouse of creativity and spunk, and her hats reflect that. With a focused attention to detail, delightful choices of fabric, and her ultimate artistry of hand blocking, Hoertz crafts hats that serve as an extension of ourselves, elevating the wearer’s persona, mood, and style.
Born in London, raised in New York, Hoertz has been creating seriously sumptuous hats since 1993, when while working as a fashion buyer, she started her own millinery company. Her creations have been showcased in shops like Barneys New York as well as featured in glossies like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and she is a long-standing member of The Milliners Guild.
Here, we lift the lid, as it were, on Jennifer Hoertz, the person.
Q: How are sales going this year?
A: Derby season, horse races, royal weddings, conservancy luncheons and spring/summer events are huge for hat businesses. Not only is it the most creative time of the year, it can make your year. But for other people, seeing all the hats at the derby and larger events creates a buzz and puts hats and millinery out there and it has increased hat wearing. I have been hearing people say hats are coming back since I started my business in 1993, and it is in the past year that I can say I finally agree.
There are so many more milliners and hat makers now compared to when I started. Back then there were like 12 and of that four were bigger names and/or companies. The rest were smaller like myself and everyone seemed to know each other or had heard of each other. Now there are many more and in the past three years it has exploded.
Q: What is your ultimate inspiration for your designs?
A: I take inspiration from the fabrics I am working with and from shape. Summer hats are primarily straw and winter are fur felts and some are best blocked fully. [Hat blocks are wooden forms carved into the shape of a hat to help form the hat.] With others, such as a straw brim, I might try to preserve the natural flow that was created by the weaver of the piece. I love blocking and making shapes. I have a small hat block obsession that all milliners share.
The shape has to flatter wearer, fit into her lifestyle, and elevate her.
Blocking is something I have always loved about the process and getting a hat blocked impeccably is important. I still run my finger along the crown and brim line to make sure it is smooth, just as my tutor did in London. Hats are about wearability and shape is the most important part of finding a client a hat because the shape has to flatter her, fit into her lifestyle, and elevate her.
Q: What does “swirl the ribbon” mean?!
A: It is a secret millinery technique passed down through the ages to get your ribbons to lay flat either inside the hat as your head fitting or outside as your trim.
Q: How have you pivoted within the art and business of hat making, if at all, since 1993 when you began?
A: I began my business focusing on wholesale orders and selling to Barneys and better specialty stores around the globe. I was with a showroom in NYC and did trade shows in the city. Since about 2015 I began doing less wholesale, pivoting to more direct-to-consumer selling via my website, custom appointments and maker/artisan shows. I do still have the same core wholesale accounts, but I love working with my customers as they pick out their hats. Educating the customer about what makes a handmade hat different from one off the shelf at conventional retailers is part of the process.
Q: How did your background as a buyer help you in the millinery business?
Educating the customer about what makes a handmade hat different from one off the shelf at conventional retailers is part of the process.
A: I worked for a high-end family-owned women’s clothing store in Huntington and South Hampton, N.Y., where I used to shop as a teen. They began featuring my hats and hired me as their “artist in residence.” I had studied fashion merchandising at college and it was the perfect start for me. Eventually, I became the accessories buyer. I was also the merchandiser/window display artist for both stores, traveling between the two, working as the manager. I wore, for lack of a better phrase, many hats!
I did this while running my own business, making small collections seasonally, and selling to Barneys and other high-end stores. Eventually when the collections were selling well, it became time to move on from the store. My experience at the store taught me so much. I still do everything from creating to sourcing, production, selling and marketing. And that experience in retail was important as a foundation.
Q: How have you balanced your business with raising twins?
A: Now it’s so much easier because they are 19 and in college. Earlier on it was, for lack of a better word, a shit show. I honestly have no idea how I have done it. It is hard to split your time, because kids are always going to come first, but your business was really your first baby and your passion. I remember when they were about a year-and-a-half old a babysitter told me she was leaving one day and it would be her last day—without any notice! I had appointments in the city the next day to show my fall collection to buyers and not having a back up sitter I took them with me into Manhattan in their red double stroller with a huge hat box balanced on the top. One of the buyers still brings this up and we laugh.
More Than Millinery
Q: What prompted you to introduce headbands into your collection?
Since most people are hat shy, a headband is an easier way for people to wear something on their head.
A: I stayed away from headbands for years. They are time consuming but are a way to make a smaller version of a hat or fascinator and makes the collection more attainable to some customers since they are priced lower. Headbands can also be considered an introductory piece for millinery. Since most people are hat shy, a headband is an easier way for people to wear something on their head. Although some headbands are a bit wilder!
Q: Who is your ultimate role model both within and outside the industry?
A: I love milliners from the past. Milliners were always their own business women and independent. I am surrounded by so many wonderful women I’ve looked up to. One is a garment director with global unions, one is a self-made photographer, one was a VA nurse and teacher, one was an Xray tech, some are students and passionate dancers. One is a nurse working with pediatric cancer patients, one is a military spouse and owns a coffee company, some are fellow milliners and makers, one has a daughter with a brain tumor, one is my sister, one was my mother. All of these women have stirred something in me that has helped to mold me and inspire me.
Q: How are you making a difference as a business woman and “aging boldly”?
A: It is important for me to pause sometimes and step back. I have come to see that keeping true to my style, my aesthetic and to what I have built is what resonates with the people I meet and encounter. I can occasionally have my own “millinery insecurities” and compare myself and where I am at in my business etc. But when I end up looking at what I have accomplished, I realize I have been blessed and I move forward. So even as my gray hairs accumulate and my wrinkles deepen I am making a difference because not only I am still creating and sharing my work, I am also growing and learning.