With a keen eye for design and a burning passion for headwear, Milliner Noeleen Kish embraces these times of change as she re-establishes her business to the other side of the world.

What do you love about being a Milliner?

As a creative person, I love how millinery enables me to be creative on a small scale with each individual project totally different to the last. The more hats you make the more you improve as a designer and maker. It’s similar to any discipline improving as the years go by, learning from past mistakes and even coming up with new ideas on how to do things more efficiently. It’s all about becoming more proficient in your craft. In particular, I love seeing my creations on heads or in fashion shows or magazines. That’s when your hard work comes to life.

Describe your designing process and what inspires you?
My design process has come a long way since I started millinery. In the beginning it was all about honing the practical side of millinery and once I had more experience under my belt the design process became easier as I could dedicate more time to designing. In my opinion the design process is more challenging to master than the making. Now I seem to be able to look at a hat and know if it looks right or not taking all the design elements into consideration. Looking through a camera lense also help you see it from a different perspective.

I love blocking hats. I also love working with fabric, in particular silk. For the one off pieces, If I’m making a blocked hat I usually decide on the shape first. I then decide on the colour and start creating. Once the base is blocked and in the colour of my choosing I go from there, deciding what trims I will use or make. The hats usually evolve from there. Sometimes I can come up with something that works on the same day. Other times the hat sits there for weeks. I’ve even come back to hats I started on a year previous or more, that turned out fabulous, when I eventually finished them. I’m usually working on a few hats at a time. I have all my fabrics and materials and trims arranged by colour now. I find this makes it easier for me to see what materials I have on hand.

I also have many concept ideas that I started on and I draw upon these ideas when I’m creating hats. I’m always finding ideas I started on for trims or hats when I had a creative burst, and then started to try to turn the idea into something that works. I have to make it to see if it works, my sketching skills are fairly basic, so I usually just start making it. They don’t always work but that’s part of the process. Lately, I’ve been using paper to cut out free form pattern ideas and I find this more structured and time efficient way of designing certain types of trims and looks. Looking back at my past work there was a lot of contrast in colours this season. I've gravitated towards monochromatic colours.

For the custom pieces, the client usually brings the dress or outfit. They try on some of my hats and shapes and I find out their preferences on trims and styles they gravitate towards. I start out with getting an overall feel for the person and their needs and wants. We decide on colour, materials, size, height, trims and price. Some people have never worn hats before and it’s a totally strange concept to them others love hats and are all in. You have to cater to everybody and patience is very important. I really want the person to be totally happy with the end result so listening is key. My designs are inspired by my travels, nature and elegance. From classic styles to modern millinery to avante garde as long as they have a good line and are elegant that’s what I am ultimately aiming for.

You have relocated to a new country during COVID times. How has this challenged your millinery business?
I moved back to Ireland at the end of 2020. Ireland was in a lockdown and I didn’t start my millinery business until recently here. It was nice to have a break and all my equipment and hat blocks were in a container in storage in Ireland so I did nothing millinery related for a year. It was a good time to look back and reflect at all the milestones along the way on my millinery journey. Because once I started millinery I never stopped. It was addictive to me and felt like I found my niche and passion.

After 23 years away I needed to reconnect with my home country. Ireland has fully reopened so now feels like a good time to get started here. I no longer have the dedicated studio I had in Hong Kong and I'm currently working from a small studio space at home with the bonus of a really good view of the sea. That's inspiring! There is a strong hat wearing culture in Ireland much more so than Hong Kong and I’m looking forward to tapping into that.

How do you stay up to date with the latest fashion trends?
I look at the fashion shows coming out of major cities. I also look back at various hats through the decades. I also look at creative hair magazines from around the world. Bows are big this season, so I’ve been making hats with bows. I see the Duchess of Cambridge has worn pill box hats lately and I’ve had customers enquiry about pill-boxes. The good thing about millinery is that you can react quickly to trends as you see them. You never know, one of your own design ideas may turn into a trend.

How do you appease the customer on a tight budget?
I always have a small selection of rental hats on hand, for people who love your work but just can’t afford the custom hat or ready to wear hat.

What is your best Millinery tip?
I am sure a lot of milliners probably use this hack already but if you can’t get the hat off the block I use plastic zip ties. I have a wire boning for the job but I find zip ties work great as they get right underneath and are very flexible and thin.
Another tip for those of you who don’t have many hat blocks yet and are using found objects to block with. It can be quite difficult to pin into the found object on the underside as it may be hard material or hardwood. A handy tip is to use 3M double sided stickers ( the type used when hanging hooks on walls, you only need the stickers) stick one side of the stickers to the object and you can then pin into the foamy part on the sticker.

Can you tell us about your most challenging project?
The biggest and most challenging project for me was being the lead milliner at the Sasa Ladies Purse in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s biggest and most fashionable race day. When I moved back to Hong Kong in 2013 my goal was to become the lead milliner at that race. I achieved this goal in 2017. They usually bring in a high profile milliner from the U.K for the event ,so to be selected was a great honour. The only problem was I had to come up with a collection of six hats for the press conference a few weeks before the race and twelve hats for the actual fashion show itself. I also had my usual customers to cater for race day too. I only had around 5 weeks to do this.

I was given free reign as to what designs to make. All the models would wear white from fashion designer Doris Kath collection. I collaborated with Doris and the brief was colourful hats. The challenge in all this was the time I had to create the collection. It was hard work to pull off in such a short time frame but seeing the hats on the runway was worth it all. This event helped raise my profile as a milliner and when opportunities come along you need to rise to the challenge.

» More from Noeleen Millinery

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