Cymru Culture

Articles / Erthyglau

Interview with milliner Catherine Povey

(April 06, 2009)



Hat wearing has had something of a resurgence recently, with many high street chains embracing this key accessory. It brings a welcome sense of panache and elegance to the high street, and an outfit never seems more complete than with the addition of a hat.
Men have worn hats since the very earliest times. Their use began for utilitarian purposes, their principal function being to protect the wearer from the elements. Moving through the centuries, to the times of the ancient Egyptian and Greek civilisations, a hat became something of a status symbol. They are shown in images and sculptures from these times, and depictions of men wearing a hat even feature on the tomb murals of the Egyptian Pharaohs. At these times, hats were made predominantly of animal skins, such as beaver and leather, or from felt, straw or silk. Hats did not emerge as an accessory for women, however, until around the sixteenth century.
Moving beyond the sixteenth century, the personalisation of head wear allowed millinery to thrive (the term 'milliner' - a makers of hats - is associated with Milan, renowned as a supplier of fine leather goods), as a hat increasingly became to be seen as a status symbol, moving from more practical considerations to indicate the wearer's position in society, their social standing and implied wealth. The hat also encapsulated the wearer's personality and sense of style, and nowhere was this more evident than in the hats worn by women in the nineteenth century. Hats were decorated with a wide range of materials, such as feathers, ribbons and flowers, and were very dramatic in appearance and size. The use of veils and other adornments were also popular during this period.
Iconic hat designs over the years range from the top hat (the epitome of bourgeois elegance) to the elaborately decorated 'bonnets' of the nineteenth century, designed by the top milliners of the age , examples of which can be seen in any Jane Austen TV adaptation, to the modern day statement pieces designed by the top milliners of our age.
Leaders in the field of millinery today are designers such as the legendary Philip Treacy (who has a considerable celebrity and royal following), and whose collections are stocked worldwide. His designs are simply breathtaking, and can be described of works of art, a sort of fabric sculpture, in their own right. Take a look at his current collections on his website and you'll see.
Stephen Jones is another leading light of the millinery world. He produces wonderful statement millinery (his couture pieces start at £500), and has attracted a considerable following, with celebrities such as Marilyn Manson and Gwen Stefani having worn his designs.
Welsh milliners have also achieved considerable success. The designs of Bridgend born Dai Rees have attracted considerable acclaim and he has attracted the ubiquitous celebrity following. Rees trained at the Royal College of Art and, having started his career in 1997, worked with another notable Welsh fashion designer, Julien MacDonald).
So, what does a fashionista do when she needs a hat for a prestigious event (more often than not the occasion that hats are worn nowadays), or if she'd like to commission something a little special to hand down to future generations? The option I would recommend is Pebbles Hats ( which specialises in the hire of well known designer hats and which showcases Catherine's bespoke millinery service).
The companies were established by Catherine Povey and are located at her home in Penarth, near Cardiff. Catherine is both a milliner of note (designing many of the hats and fascinators herself), also offering clients the opportunity to hire pieces from more established milliners, such as Philip Treacy and Pip Hackett, for one-off events. The range of hats available is astounding, from staple wardrobe pieces that complete an outfit, to items nothing short of works of art (ideal for weddings, Ascot etc.), all elaborately and elegantly draped with feathers, tulle and crystals.
We caught up with Catherine and asked her why she started Pebbles Hats and Catherine Povey Millinery, and why she has such a fascination with hats …

CC ... Catherine, please tell us why you decided to start Pebbles Hats and your bespoke millinery service, Catherine Povey Millinery, and how you began the businesses.

CP … 'I was working in the NHS at the time and needed a new direction, something that I could do at home that would allow me to work creatively. I started by researching milliners and hats in general and became fascinated. The possibilities are limitless with a hat - in colour, style, material and shape. I find hats very exciting.'

Black Ruffle Hat by Catherine Povey
Black Ruffle Hat, designed by Catherine Povey

CC ... Starting any new business is tough. What difficulties did you encounter at the beginning?'

CP … 'I think confidence was my major problem early on. I found it difficult to take myself seriously as a milliner or business woman. It really took time and experience before I began to believe in myself and see that I could actually do this.'

'Topper', designed by Catherine Povey

CC ... Was there ever a point that you felt like giving up the business?

CP … 'However desperate things got - the times I had to stay up all night to finish a hat, the times I didn't have the money to pay for the bills - I never regretted starting the business or felt like giving up. Its the best career decision I have ever taken.'

'Lily' (front view), designed by Catherine Povey
'Lily' (back view), designed by Catherine Povey

CC ... Lots of people reading this article may very well be inspired by your journey and wish to take the opportunity to start their own business. Do you have any advice to offer?'

CP … 'I think you have to try and be the best at what you do. Its important to thoroughly research the area you are going into. Become an expert and treat every customer with absolute care and respect. I think customer care is hugely important. Without your customers you have no business.'

'Madame Cyn', designed by Catherine Povey

CC ... What led to your fascination with hats?

CP … 'I have always been interested in fashion and as a family we have always worn hats to weddings. As a student I wore a hat to be a bit different. I bought hats from charity shops and my grandma gave me her funeral hat when I had a bit of a Gothic phase. Its not something I have always planned to do, or even that I knew I could do. But I feel I have found my calling. I am passionate about hats.'

'Samantha', by Catherine Povey

CC ... Why is the hat so important as an accessory?

CP … 'A hat can make or break an outfit. At a special event a hat lifts the outfit into another dimension. The right hat makes you feel special. At a wedding it also ties you into the event as a participant, if you are wearing a hat you feel part of the occasion rather than just a spectator.'

CC ... Who is your favourite milliner?

CP … 'I have a number of favourite milliners. One is Stephen Jones. I love his literal interpretations and his interesting use of materials. His hats inspire me and make sense to me too. Another favourite is Louis Mariette who creates the most incredible pieces, they are works of art, crazy at times but awe-inspiring. There are so many other milliners that I admire, too many to mention.'

'Empire', designed by Catherine Povey

CC ... Hats can range from the quite reserved and chic, to highly elaborate statement pieces. What do you feel the choice of hat says about the wearer?

CP … 'I feel the choice of hat speaks volumes about the wearer. A hat sits on top of your head, signaling your personality like a flag. That's why its so important to make the right choice and why many people feel uncomfortable wearing a hat. If you wear the wrong hat you are making a statement about yourself that is untrue and that doesn't feel right. On the other hand the right hat will increase your confidence and make you feel like a million dollars. It really is worth taking the time to find the right style for the occasion, for your outfit but most importantly for yourself.'

CC ... You also design hats yourself. What gives you inspiration when you start to design a piece?

CP … 'I find inspiration in many things. I have made hats based on works of art, on observations in nature. I find its interesting to look into the past and reinvent classic pieces, I love the twenties cloche hat. Inspiration is everywhere.'


CC ... Your website states that you offer a commission service. Do you enjoy the challenge of commission work?


CP … 'I love commission work. Its great fun to work with someone to create the right headpiece for them. Sometimes it can be tricky. Some people come in with an absolute fixed idea in their minds and others come in and have no idea at all. Both scenarios can be challenging. Its difficult to discuss a piece when it is just an idea. Even when surrounded by colour samples, feathers and example pieces, it can be tricky to imagine the finished article. It is usually a matter of evolution. The client needs to put themselves into my hands and trust that I will listen carefully to their every request and interpret it as best I can. But the challenging commissions are the most satisfying when the finished result is just right. That's a great feeling. And I get many cards, letters and photos from satisfied customers, which are very much appreciated.'

CP Samantha
'Jane' designed by Catherine Povey

CC ... Your studio and showroom is based in your home, and we note from your website that people can make arrangements to have a free fitting and consultation, and also view the collection. Talk us through the process.

CP … 'If someone would like to hire a hat or discuss a commission they just need to give me a ring or send an email and make an appointment. For bespoke pieces I do need at least three weeks notice and more during the very busy time - around Ascot and the Summer holidays. For hat hire people can come over, even the day before if necessary (it does happen!) with their outfit and try on the hats. When we find the perfect hat they then pay the hire fee to reserve the hat for the date they need it and make an appointment to collect it. I also do hat hire and commission pieces remotely by email and phone. I have made hats and hired out hats to people as far away as the States. They always seem to fit and match well. For commission pieces there will be a number of fittings to make sure that the finished piece is just right.'

CC ... Where would you like to see Catherine Povey Millinery and Pebbles Hat Hire in five years time?

CP … 'I would love to be concentrating largely on Catherine Povey Millinery and have a partner running Pebbles Hat Hire. I feel it's good to be able to offer both services, people often come in to hire and leave having commissioned a hat. And sometimes they come to buy and spot the perfect hat to hire. But my passion is designing and making hats and I currently don't have enough time to do as much as I would like. I hope to work with designers making hats to complement their clothes and also concentrate on my own collections. I have already started on the Autumn/Winter 2009 collection - it takes such a long time. It would also be nice to expand the hat hire business and to open shops further afield. Customers often travel from as far as Bristol, a few even from London and from West Wales, and further North. So I guess there is a demand for the service and it would be nice if people didn't have to travel so far. So watch this space!'


CC ... Are you undertaking any exhibitions or shows in 2009, where people can go to see examples from the collection?

CP … 'I have finished doing all the wedding fairs and exhibitions for this year, they will start again in the autumn. I usually work on the hats throughout the spring and summer and exhibit in the winter when its quieter. I am, however, booked to give a number of talks this year. If anyone would like a speaker for their group then they just need to contact me. The talks are always great fun. Everyone has a chance to try on the hats and I give advice on how to find the best hat for you.'

CC … Catherine Povey, thank you.


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