Judy Bentinck is one of the UK’s leading milliners, and has a waiting list of clients eager to get their hands on one of her sought-after couture creations.
As well as creating several collections a year that are sold worldwide, Judy makes bespoke hats for individual clients, including celebrities such as Claire Balding, Jenny Agutter, Eve Pollard, and Anna Williamson.
Judy has also written a book called Designing and Making Hats and Headpieces, that gives away some of the tricks of the trade to would-be hat makers attempting their own designs at home.
Here Judy shares a typical working day:
“I am not a lover of early mornings, so I have to be strict that when the 7.30am alarm goes off, I do actually get up! First I go and make a cup of lemon and tepid water and take my vitamins. This is followed by a mug of strong black coffee, by which point I start to feel awake. Once bathed and dressed I have Greek yoghurt, honey and fruit, and then my working day begins.
I try and get the practical tasks on my computer out of the way before I leave my home in north London. This is mainly emails that need attention – enquiries about a hat for a special day, a magazine requesting a headpiece for a shoot, or a booking for one of my millinery courses, which I run both myself, and at Central St Martin’s College.
Then mid-morning I head to my studio in Holborn, making my to-do list en route. My studio is a hub of creativity, with lots of space, white walls, and bright lighting from a skylight. It takes a lot of effort to keep it tidy though, as I have around 50 beautiful hats in there at a time, not to mention all the materials and equipment!
If it is a day when I have help (mainly during the spring and summer, as that is the busiest time of year) I organise what they will do, then I will generally get to work on a commission myself. I like to spread out, and often need lots of space, for example to cut out petals. I have a big table to work on, and keep an ironing board and a kettle ready at all times, in case something is creased or needs manipulating into shape.
The building is shared by 100 different designers in various spaces, and is a fabulous place to be based – if I ever run out of anything, I can just nip down the corridor and plead for some from a fellow milliner!
During the morning a courier may collect some hats for a photo shoot with a magazine such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, or Style magazine.
It is easy to lose track of the time in my studio, so I never bring food in, instead letting my rumbling stomach signal it is time to take a break. When the weather is good I eat in a nearby park, or if it is busy, back at my desk, answering any queries on my iPad.
The afternoon often involves a consultation with a potential client. Sometimes people will cold call, looking for a last minute hat, and if I have something to hand that fits their needs that’s great.
But generally, my customers are looking for something bespoke. I have a consultation area where we will sit and discuss the occasion, and their importance within it. Then we will look at any decisions that have been made so far on the rest of the outfit. If they have anything with them, then all the better, as colour, material, if the outfit is tailored, floaty, etc, all matter to the hat choice.
In terms of measurements, I will take the circumference – across the brow and round the bump at the back of the head – and then over the top, from one ear to the other.
The client then tries on different styles. Sometimes people will be adamant and say: “I always wear a pillbox” when I know they will suit something else better. But I like them to see it for themselves, so we work through various sample hats and headpieces.
People generally know when they have found the right style – their posture changes and their eyes brighten which is satisfying to see.
Then we work out any changes such as a wider brim, more height, and if it needs decoration such as feathers, and then they leave me to create it…
Some of my clients are celebrities, looking for a hat for a special occasion, such as a trip to Ascot, or even to wear when collecting their OBE from Buckingham Palace.
They like to feel confident that the press won’t know what they are wearing beforehand so I have to keep the design well hidden from other clients. It is great to see pictures after the event, and see what you have contributed to their day.
I rarely actually get to the races myself, as they fall at the busiest time of year for millinery, but I go when I can, and love being in the Royal Enclosure, seeing the fashion choices people have made – both the good and the bad!
In an ideal world, lots of notice from a potential client is good, but I have had people with last minute tickets to the races, or panicked mothers-of-the-bride coming in on a Wednesday, asking for a new hat for that weekend. There has been the odd occasion when they are cutting it so fine, that I have had to courier the hat direct to the bridal hotel! I will always do what I can to accommodate, and if the design is straightforward, and I have all the necessary materials in the studio, I can make a hat in a day at a real push.
After the client has left – with a smile on their face – I might make plans for a photoshoot of my own, to showcase a new range, or recently it has been for my book, Designing and Making Hats and Headpieces. I need to decide on a model, and prep the make-up artist and photographer to get the shoot exactly how I envision it.
On a quiet evening I will get home shortly after 7pm, answer any pressing emails, then relax with a glass of white wine and chat about the day with my husband Tim. If we are feeling more lively, we both enjoy a trip to the theatre.
Other evenings I will go out with my girlfriends for a night of gossip or a late night museum visit – as you might have guessed, the fashion and textiles museum is my favourite!
And then there are work related evenings, where I see other milliners, such as the recent launch party for London Hat Week. Millinery is a small world, but we don’t see each other that often, so it’s nice to catch up – and check out what hat each of us is wearing that night!”
Five Tips for Choosing a Hat for the Races
* Be sure to check if the event you are going to, and the area you will be in, has a dress code – some of the races in particular can be quite strict, such as Royal Ascot, especially if you are lucky enough to be in the Royal Enclosure! But others are more relaxed, and even if it isn’t obligatory to wear a hat it is a wonderful opportunity to do so.
* You can have a lot more fun with hats at the races than say at a wedding, and you can plan to be outrageous or flamboyant without upsetting anyone. This is the place to show off, and really push the boat out. Big brims can make cheek kissing a bit of a problem especially if two big hats collide but you can always blow a kiss instead!
*On the inverse, if flamboyant isn’t you, don’t feel obliged to go down that route, as feeling comfortable in your choice is the most important thing of all. Small and chic can do just as well, and you can always jazz it up a bit with a veil or feather.
* It is important to make sure your hat stays on securely as races days can be very windy. Be sure to have a hat that fits well and has elastic or an internal comb to help hold it in place. Headpieces on headbands are great as they are easy to put on and stay in place all day.
* When shopping, try on a range of hats to be sure you wear the one most flattering to your face and proportions. Every shape suits a different hat, and if you can take your dress to the shop to try on with the hats, all the better. Then on the day, forget you are even wearing a hat. Stand tall and know how fabulous you look!
Designing and Making Hats and Headpieces is out now, through Crowood Press Ltd, £19.95 hardback from Amazon.