Question: So, to begin, you are from South Africa. Were you designing and making hats there before coming to New York?
Albertus Swanepoel: Well, I’m from the northern part of the country, a place called Pritoria. I had been studying graphic design
and then switched to fashion design. Following that, I had a pretty successful run as a designer in South Africa, I got a bit famous,
Q: That’s wild, what were your clothing designs like?
A.S.: (He laughs) Well, a ton of textures, deep colors, I personally wore a lot of purple velvet.
Q: So how did the transition to New York happen?
A.S.: I was on vacation and while I was here I was offered a job in sports wear while I was here. I figured, ”Why not give it a try?”
You know, it made a lot of sense for me at the time to make the move here, if designing was what I was doing, there isn’t really
anywhere better to be than here.
Q: And how long have you been here, how long ago was that vacation you took?
A.S.: 22 years. Yeah, 22 years ago.
Q: And then the hats emerged from sportswear?
A.S.: No, they emerged from gloves! I was designing and making leather gloves each winter and they were selling quite well, but it
was a season bound business and in the warmer months it wasn’t a lucrative business. I began playing around with hat designs and
decided to make it legitimate, so I enrolled in a millinery class at FIT, which was a stroke of good luck. While a student there I got to
take classes with Jeanine Galimard and Janet Lynville and they’re just amazing, I was working under the best. My hats picked up notice
and in 2004 I had a break in luck by way of the Marc Jacobs and Proenza (Proenza Schuler) shows, I was commissioned to make hats
for their runway shows. I officially formed the company in 2006. The Balenciaga hats were so fun that season, these lovely black clothes
with slight veils.
Q: And you were nominated for some CFDA awards pretty quickly after forming the proper Albertus Swanepole LLC, right?
A.S.: Yeah, two of them, one in 2008 (Wang won that one) and one in 2009 for fashion accessories. The real turning point for me was
in 2009 though, Laird Barelli-Persson did a massive interview of me for style.com and the next day Bergdorf’s emailed me asking for a
linesheet and a meeting. I didn’t even have a full line to present at that point. I slammed a debut line presentation together in 2 ½ weeks
and that was the birth of my full label, prior to that is was mostly commission and bespoke jobs.
Q: And were those two weeks stressful? What sort of timeline does a single hat require in terms of work and hands-on hours?
A.S: Well…. yeah, they were quite busy days. (He laughs a bit as he says this.) There are two manners of making a hat, with a block or
with bucram; if I use a block the initial process is to steam rabbit felt till it’s malleable and then form it over the block, which will be carved
into the basic shape of the hat I’m making, such as a fedora, a pork pie, a cloche. Some of the best blocks are quite old, hundreds of
years you know. (As Albertus describes the blocks I stare at the hundreds of them lining his small mid-town studio. They are all work-worn,
smooth wood and it creates a striking, and yet warm backdrop to the quiet, collaborative work that is done within those four walls by Albertus,
his assistant Amber and their drop-in Orlando.) So, yeah, working by block is what I usually do and that takes a good two to three hours of
hands-on stretching and forming the felt, pinning and roping it in place, allowing it to dry overnight and then another two-three hours of finishing
and detailing the hat. The bucram is a different story altogether. You wet the material and then free-shape it into the desired form, continuing
to work as it dries. That method takes a good seven hours of work by hand at a time.
Q: And then the subsequent detailing is a bit of a haul, right? What sort of detail work do you do?
A.S.: Well, I’m a maximalist- more is more, less is a bore. It’s funny because most of my hats appear really simple, but I think that maybe what
has set them apart are the small turns of a detail. And in every collection I make a few hats out of cloth native to my home in South Africa, as a
way of remembering and honoring where I’ve come from…. Not to mention that they’re just gorgeous, lots of colors and relief-dyed patterns, a
maximalists dream. But typically, the detailing comes in the cut of the brim, the ribbon trim. I’m a huge fan of grosgrain. I love its traditional
association. It’s almost ritualized.
Q: Is there any material you avoid in designing and making your collections?
A.S.: Crinoline. I think it’s just sort of tacky. I’ll maybe use deconstructed wisps of it to hint at cobwebs or something, but hardly even that…
More is more, but that goes for taste, too.
Each day we draw from countless songs, chosen by the Odin family, to help foster an environment that is merry to be sure, but never forcibly jolly, and not a carol has made its way onto the playlist yet. Rather, we tend to feature the songs that inspire us, much in the same way that we seek out and feature the items and clothes that inspire us enough to be included in our store’s collection. We're often asked, "What's playing right now?"
HERE'S AN ASSORTMENT:
Broken by Inertia
NIKI AND THE DOVE