Mad for the Hatters
As the Duchess of Cambridge has shown the world, modern royalty crowns itself with finely crafted hats. Fine hats and millinery have a reputation for requiring an exceptional wearer – or a special occasion. But before you rule them out, be warned: Vienna’s hat ateliers might change your mind.
Hatmaker Marion Weiss informs me that I have just fallen in love with a Brückerl, a distinctly Viennese headpiece whose name ("little bridge") refers to its arched, elongated shape. Priced in the low 200s, this piece is earthy and velvet, vintage-looking – two flat mustard yellow roses on a field of moss green.
The right kind of woman could pair this delightfully unfussy piece with slim jeans and heels.
At marions hutatelier, Weiss, who sports her grey hair in a modern bob, shows me a picture of the Salzburg master milliner under whom she trained. The black-and-white photo of a grandmotherly milliner at work in a becurtained nook could almost pass for a turn-of-the-century scene. But then through the nook’s window one notes the passersby in modern clothing.
So are Weiss’s hats vestiges of another age?
Yes and no. Millinery is doubtless an increasingly rarefied art. But Weiss creates headband fascinators and combs with small, feathered accents that a chic 20-year-old could pull off with aplomb.
Even a taupe pillbox in the window does not look like a period-piece – its wide weave, almost straw-like buckram modernises the classic shape. In summer especially, Weiss specialises in working with clients to create custom designs, matching a gown’s colour and style, or striking the right tone for an important event.
Four generations of hats
For more casual options, one can try the mühlbauer shop on Seilergasse. My pick for men: a sky blue panama with a darker ribbon trim, in a shape between pork pie and fedora. One can imagine an American from the roaring ‘20s sporting it at a derby.
Women seeking a classic Hollywood elegance can opt for a surprisingly wearable turban in white sinamay (a light, stiffened fiber made from a species of Philippine banana plant). Another pick: a wide-brimmed sun hat in red and yellow dip-dyed parasisal (an expensive, high-quality straw material).
The Mühlbauer workshop is a sunny, orderly haven above the human chaos of Schwedenplatz. The youthfulness of my guide, the maroon-haired Katarina Labitich, belies her expertise and responsibility as head of production in this enterprise where 12 hatmakers create as many as 150 largely hand-crafted hats per week. Mühlbauer, a four-generation family business founded in 1903, develops a new collection each season, working far in advance.
One of Labitich’s colleagues emerges from his office as we begin to discuss the summer 2014 collection, debuting on Paris runways this July. I am the first journalist to see it, he tells me, and is visibly excited as he talks me through the muted colour scheme (mint and neutrals), the fine Japanese cotton jersey hats, the crochet-weave panama, the straw hats’ straw bands.
I have the feeling that every new collection elicits a similar enthusiasm.
Back in the workshop, in which pre-war equipment still serves the artisans ("the modern machines are designed for assembly-lines"), I try on a winter 2015 template, a black wool knit cap with a turban-like gathering. We decide it looks best centered, but could be worn over the right eye.
"Women’s hat trimmings traditionally go on the right, and men’s traditionally on the left," explains Labitich. In past centuries, men strolled nearer the street, women strolled nearer the buildings, and no one wanted their trimmings tangled. "Maybe they had hats with long pheasant feathers," she adds whimsically.
Shmuel Shapira came to Vienna from his native Jerusalem to take over hat production at the classic Vienna men’s hat store szaszi.
Named after its 1858 Hungarian founder, the atelier offers timeless, and nearly seasonless, men’s hats.
Shapira consults with his customers to customise the perfect style and size. Even the trimmings are exceptional: "antique hat-bands from factories that have long ceased to exist" or "silk ribbons in all shades, from before the war."
For the little dandies out there, the Szaszi collection even includes a child’s cap with a small feather accent.
If the siren call of an artisan hat shop has not seized you, the Vienna chain nagy hüte offers a wide range of fine hats for men and women. You won’t get millinery masterworks here, but this may be the place for a really excellent sunhat this summer.
Or if you can bear to brave the sheer density of its Tirolian offerings, the gift and hat company oberwalder & co. features headwear whose aesthetic generally falls between high-class Alpine camping trip and urban chic.
There isn’t simply one hat for you, there are many. So, go forth and rock them.
Marion Weiss: 1., Seilerstätte 18-20
Mühlbauer: 1., Seilergasse 10
Szaszi: 7., Mariahilferstraße 4