Congratulations to Olya Ryjenko as the recipient of the First Prize Novice Award in Hatters Hattember 2023 Millinery Competition. Olya shares with us her inspiration and the design skills she used to create this winning whimsical piece.
Photo: Hattember

The theme for your category was “Happy Hatting” and your lobster creation certainly made us all smile. When you received your curated bag of Millinery supplies did your inspiration come immediately?
This might sound a little odd but I thought of the lobster as soon as I opened the materials pack – everything I received was red so it seemed like an obvious choice to me. I did initially spend time illustrating a number of other design ideas that were more traditional but my heart was really with the lobster concept so I decided to just go for it and see if I could make it work.

Amongst all the entries your headpiece certainly popped out in colour and shape as a form of surreal art. Is this your usual design styling?
As a novice milliner, I’m still discovering my preferences and enjoying trying different methods and styles. However, I’ve made a couple of pieces this year that quite overtly take inspiration from surrealist art. It’s an inviting genre for statement pieces that are injected with fun, absurdity and a sense of not taking oneself too seriously. It is definitely a style I keep gravitating towards and will continue to explore into the future. For me, this approach is emblematic of the fun you can have when you set aside the notion of traditional design aesthetics, particularly if the technical execution is done well. This is something I am continuing to work on and have some interesting ideas in mind for my next piece!

To shape the sinamay did you have suitable blocks or how did you improvise?
I had to do a bit of improvising. The lobster’s head was blocked using a couple of sinamay layers on a small button block. The claws were blocked with 2 layers on a slightly asymmetric toque/fez style crown block. Once dry, I removed the blocked sinamay from the block, marked the depth and trimmed it to the marking. I then squished the sinamay down to create a little fold and voilà, the claw was formed. The sinamay was very forgiving and I was pleasantly surprised that both claws could be folded symmetrically without issue.

Experimentation process.

What first sparked your interest in Millinery?
In my 20s I was obsessed with early twentieth century fashion with a huge interest in the hats and shoes of the 1920s to the 1940s. I briefly tried my hand at making custom reproduction clothing from that era for clients but eventually realised I really just wanted to make hats! I started making hats from vintage and reproduction patterns and then came across old instructional books from the early twentieth century that explained blocking and wiring. At the time, I felt like I was out of my depth so decided to start my millinery journey formally at TAFE College.

What is your previous experience with millinery competitions?
This is my third competition entry. Last year’s Hattember was my first and I was very proud to have been selected as a finalist in the Novice category. I strongly believe that competitions are a wonderful way for student or novice milliners to improve their skills. You may not know what materials you’re going to receive so you may end up having to really push yourself to work with materials or techniques you’ve never tried before. I think there’s a sense of validation there from being able to pull something together to a brief and challenge yourself. The more you do it, the better you get! You are also forced to work to a deadline which is fantastic training for working with clients.

Can you tell us about the use of veiling in the design?
The veiling was part of my materials pack and I was really pleased – I had just watched Louise Macdonald’s Different Hat, Same Veil Live Lesson on Hat Academy and at the time was particularly struck with her demo of making tiny feather claws to accent veiling. Serendipitously, I watched this lesson at the point where I was deciding which of my designs to proceed with and it was a perfect match - I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to add this detail to the veiling of my headpiece – it was meant to be!

Design process.

Judges place emphasis on finish and wearability. What steps did you take to ensure you had accomplished this criteria?
Judges’ feedback from the last hat competition I entered suggested I most needed to improve in these two areas so I got to practising! In particular, I focused on making wired headbands for a variety of hats and headpieces of different sizes and angles that require different support structures to hold them in place comfortably and securely. One headpiece is actually for an upcoming competition and is 70cm wide! By the time Hattember rolled around, I felt confident I could create a support that was both solid and attractive.

For the finish criterion, I leaned a bit further into the idea of millinery being ‘slow fashion’ and really took the time to practise keeping stitches small and even, hiding raw edges, making sure that surfaces are crisp – all the bread and butter millinery technique things. And if something didn’t look quite right, carefully unpicking and starting again. My motto is: “if the hat looks more like it belongs to a school Easter hat parade than to a millinery competition, undo and try again!” To translate for anyone who isn’t in Australia, it’s about being conscious that millinery as a practice needs to be executed with a degree of finesse or it can verge on looking like craft.

What was the biggest challenge creating this stand out Headpiece?
I had several designs in mind for executing the lobster hat, each involving different combinations of materials and techniques – some came in the pack and others I owned already or purchased to play around with. I was experimenting and had a few toiles going simultaneously, and had reached a point where I couldn’t decide which one to proceed with. Then I had a fortuitous chat with a peer who gave me some great advice: “just stick to the materials in the pack”. Simple and perhaps obvious but I was able to move forward after that without overcomplicating the design or getting overwhelmed with all the experimentation. I will be taking that advice with me to all future Hattembers!

What does this win mean to you personally and for your branding?
I can’t adequately express how validating this win was! I think the best part was feeling like there is a place for me as a budding milliner amongst the amazing talent of the millinery community. This has given me more confidence to pursue my own style and approach. It has also cemented the idea that getting involved and trying things can have really amazing and unexpected outcomes. I really just feel a sense of excitement about the future!

Thanks Olya, enjoy your prize of a 12 months subscription to Hat Academy Studio+

» More from Olya Ryjenko

» Hattember Competition

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