It was the calm before the revolution in modern Irish history. A baker’s wife gave birth to a baby boy in an eastern Galway village called Ahascragh, with a population of 4,500. Little Philip grew up with seven brothers and a sister in a town that had its own patron saint Cuan, where Bingo is still played every second weekend at the parish hall, and where fishing is still allowed in the open season on road bridges with a daily bag limit of six trout.
As a small child, Philip Treacy—today the world’s most phenomenal hat designer, the winner of several fashion awards, the beloved of the royalty and glitterati, and Ireland’s greatest fashion export—loved to watch the weddings at the church across his home. “They were the equivalent of fashion shows to me. The dresses that people wore—I couldn’t believe them, they were incredible. It seemed so glamorous to see these creatures appear in these extraordinary clothes,” he tells me of his first introduction to wedding fashion.
In 1985, the year of the Anglo-Irish Agreement which led to ceasefire after more than a decade of violence in the region, 17-year-old Treacy first encountered a big city—the imaginative lad moved to Dublin to study at the National College of Art and Design. A few years later, he won a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Art, where he took up hat design, his first efforts fashioned from materials found in local flea markets. Soon, he began to work for established designers such as John Galliano, Rifat Ozbek and Victor Edelstein.
His fortune changed when style icon Isabella Blow became his customer and mentor, and introduced him to fashion’s high and mighty. He tells us about a defining incident when he was 23 and had just left school: “I was summoned to Paris to meet Karl Lagerfeld, chief designer at Chanel. I didn’t know whether to call him Mr Lagerfeld or whatever. I was totally intimidated but Issie was exactly herself. She just walked into the house of Chanel and said, ‘We’d like some tea please’.” Blow—a fashion editor and consultant from an aristocratic family—remained a steadfast inspiration and confidante for Treacy, wearing his hats for red-carpet events, famously announcing: “If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip, cover my face, and feel fantastic.” With her association as a diving board, Treacy went on to design hats for Lagerfeld at Chanel for 10 years, the first being a twisted birdcage. He also began creating conversation starters for fashion houses like Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, Valentino, Helmut Lang, Thierry Mugler and Versace, amongst many others, and experimented with hotel and furniture design.
Recognition followed. Treacy earned the Accessory Designer of the Year award at the British Fashion Awards five times in the nineties, and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2007, the year that his muse, Blow, committed suicide. His creations featured on magazine covers, on the heads of princesses and pop stars, supermodels and society women, actors and artists. They were showcased in museums, luxury department stores, and auctioned for good causes—his infamous bow hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011 raised eyebrows for its ‘toilet-seat appearance’ and also US$131,000 for charity. “I have just sort of made hats sexy,” Treacy admits.
There was no dearth of inspiration for the milliner who insists on being called a ‘hat designer’. “People always ask me if I would have preferred to live in a more ‘hat’ era, such as the twenties or forties, but I think it is much more exciting to work today. I use contemporary influences, whatever is going on in the world. I’m influenced by everything from art, sculpture, painting, architecture, photography, music, cinema,” says Treacy, who idolises American artist Andy Warhol. Treacy’s favourite musicians include Grace Jones, Michael Jackson, and the inimitable Lady Gaga, who labels him simply “the greatest milliner in the world”. The man whose most cherished creation is the wedding headdress he designed for Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, when she tied the knot with Prince Charles, believes people gain confidence by wearing hats: “A hat can completely change the personality of the wearer, make them stand differently and walk differently. It can make that person feel interesting.” His philosophy finds echo in the incredible work of Indian milliner Shilpa Chavan, who trained under Treacy.
The self-confessed ‘fashion-animal’ is especially fond of dressing up those he calls ‘non-believers’: “It is more exciting to dress somebody who doesn’t think they are going to look good in a hat and then prove them wrong.” He is proud of his famous Indian connection. “I’ve loved working for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and I would love to work with her again. She is stunning!” he enthuses, adding, “And I’d love to design for a Bollywood movie!”
Though hats have been around from the time humans developed clothing, one of the most important aspects of Treacy job he says “is that I have an opportunity to influence how people see hats in the 21st century. And that is very exciting.” From weddings to red carpets to rock shows, the man of many hats plans to stay relevant for a long while to come.
First published in the April 2014 issue of Harper’s Bazaar Bride