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Joanne Edwards Millinery: Getting Ahead

Joanne Edwards is a Womenswear Designer and Milliner based in Clapham, southwest London. She has more than 10 years of experience in the fashion industry and runs Joanne Edwards Millinery as well as working on other design projects.

She ‘dresses the head’ using specialist skills developed from her chosen studies and from working with experts such as Edwina Ibbotson, to create ready-to-wear collections, bridal designs and bespoke headpieces. She spoke to Utelier about her journey in fashion.

Tell us about what led you to become a fashion designer

As a child, I loved drawing, sewing and crafting. I would nag my mother to buy bags of scrap material, which were sold off for 50p at the local bridal shops, and would make all sorts of things! I then began to fill little notebooks with sketches of dresses.

After leaving school, I completed a BTEC in Art & Design at Limavady College of Further and Higher Education in Northern Ireland, then specialised in Fashion Design and got my degree at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin.

After that, I travelled to London to pursue two weeks of work experience with French Connection, who then hired me, and I’ve remained in London ever since!

What attracted you to headwear design?

I had worked in the fashion industry for several years and had been designing occasion dresses and bridal wear, which I really enjoyed. However, I wanted to get back to making things with my hands, and I had a strong desire to become skilled in some sort of handcraft, so I signed up for various courses.

Millinery fit perfectly with my previous experience in fashion design, and I loved the idea that I could now design and hand make something for the head that would complement an entire outfit, and the special occasion where it would be worn.

What skills does one need in order to be a milliner?

1. Patience: making a handmade hat in its traditional form requires many hours of handwork and sewing!

2. An eye for design, colour, shape and form.

3. The ability to understand a client’s needs, and the occasion for which they require a hat, is integral to providing a bespoke service, as I can create a style that will enhance a client’s chosen outfit.

4. Being able to guide clients towards styles that suit them, taking into account their frame, face shape, outfit, and occasion. I really love this process due to my fashion background. I love to see a client’s entire outfit come together with the enhancement of a bespoke hat.

5. I think that you also really need to care about people and want to do your absolute best for them. You are providing a service and it’s up to you to make the client look and feel fabulous at their special occasion. Creating a bespoke headpiece, say for a bride, is a huge responsibility and a privilege.

It might be assumed that most of your business is during wedding season and around events like Royal Ascot, but you run a successful business year-round. How do you make your fashion business work?

Finding ways to keep a seasonal business going during the quieter months is incredibly challenging. I love to be involved in fashion design work alongside millinery to ensure that I’m always working on a project, so I seek out collaborations with fashion brands and undertake freelance projects.

Joanne with TV presenter and stylist Brendan Courtney

How do you divide your time between your other design work and your fashion business?

Juggling… Like everyone else!

What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge ahead for you as a milliner and fashion business owner?

High-end handcrafted millinery has a small niche market, and this is seasonally driven in the UK and Ireland. It is incredibly labour-intensive and therefore requires a higher price point, so I would like to find ways to offer a more affordable product to the wider market.

I’m also thinking about ways to share this beautiful little world of creativity! I’d love to teach others the techniques I’ve learned, so I’m working on how to take that idea forward.

Can you briefly tell us about the design process for headwear?

I begin by discussing the client’s outfit and the occasion that they will be attending. They then try on a selection of existing hats and headpieces, and once they find a style that they like I adapt the design, colour, fabric and trimming, to suit their outfit and the occasion. We then have a second fitting when the hat or headpiece is almost finished, to ensure that the client is happy with the overall look and fit before finalising the piece.

Alternatively, if a client would prefer a bespoke style designed for them, I will sketch two or three options based on a discussion of their needs. The “make” process would then begin from the chosen sketch.

What is your favourite design to date?

I don’t really have a favourite, but the piece that women respond to and love to try on the most is Sculpted Roses. It’s an incredibly dreamy, ethereal and feminine piece.

Sculpted Roses

What equipment do you need?

Depending on the scale and type of millinery business, equipment will include, but is not limited to:

  • various shapes of wooden blocks
  • a hat stretcher
  • a steamer
  • an iron
  • a selection of dyes
  • stiffeners
  • flower-making tools
  • millinery fabrics.

How did you go about setting up your business?

Whilst studying for a BTEC in Millinery at the Kensington & Chelsea College, I knew I wanted to establish my own millinery brand. After completing the course, I sought out work with established couture milliner, Edwina Ibbotson. This experience really helped me to understand what the role of a milliner would be on a day-to-day basis.

It was a step-by-step process from there, I went from assessing the market, compiling financial forecasts, building the website and designing business cards, to creating collections and organising photo shoots.

What do you love the most about your career?

I love the flexibility. It is hard work but it allows me the freedom to work at any time of the day (and night!) for myself, whilst enjoying the crossover between fashion design and millinery.

Which fashion designer do you admire and why?

From the fashion world Erdem, and from the millinery world, I really value each Milliner for their own individuality and style. Right now, I think Sophie Beale’s hats are really exciting; they are innovative whilst remaining incredibly feminine.

What is the one thing that you wish people knew about being a Milliner?

The extensive amount of hours, sweat, and dedication that go into an entirely handmade hat!

Finally, what has been the proudest moment of your life?

I was thrilled to have worked with Vidal Sassoon to create headwear for them which was worn at the Royal Albert Hall. Teaming up with LK Bennett stores in London to showcase my hats during the summer months was also a fantastic experience!

Image credit: Joanne Edwards