Maison Michel | Prestige Hong Kong (Nov 18)

Maison Michel Hong Kong Prestige Zaneta Cheng

From creation to consumption, there’s a universe to consider when it comes to Priscilla Royer’s vision for Parisian milliner Maison Michel. zaneta cheng dives in to see what it’s all about

To fix any hat of quality – say, it’s a little wonky here, or gets a deep fold there – you have simply to massage it, says Priscilla Royer, creative director of Maison Michel. Massage the hat, work the crease out of the material, and make the form more flexible so that the shape is no longer broken.

“That’s when it becomes your hat,” she explains. “It’s a bit wobbly and it gets wonky but it’s really your hat, your head shape, the way you carry it and pinch it at the front. You have to live with the hat in a way. Work with it so it becomes your own throughout the time that you have it.”

Listening to Royer talk hats, there’s an undercurrent that seems to flow right through the conversation. Whether it’s about consumers or craftspeople, when Royer discusses hats, she’s referring less to the art of millinery than simply talking about letting go.

As for those who hold on to the idea that they don’t have a head made for hats, Royer is dismissive. “Everyone has a hat head,” she says. “It’s a question of finding the right shape, also trusting yourself with your style and empowering the whole hat-wearing thing.”

So what even is a hat head? Royer points to the fedora and the cap as staples, but argues that the only hat head is the one to which one’s hat has already accustomed itself – if only the wearer can relax his or her preconceived notions that the head is in service to the hat and embrace the idea that the opposite is the case, and is careful to preserve the accessory’s original shape.

“Try hats the way you try sunglasses,” she says. “Just swap them a lot in front of the mirror. Have a bit of fun. You say, ‘Oh, this is me, this is not me,’ and once you stop laughing, that’s when you’re happy about the hat on your head.”

Although an unwitting teacher, Royer practices what she preaches. Having trained as a fashion designer at the prestigious Studio Berçot in Paris, Royer worked her way up to designer at Vivienne Westwood before starting her own award-winning brand with her sister. She then cast that aside to try her hand at millinery, taking over the reins at Chanel’s Métiers d’Art atelier, Maison Michel. In the three years since, she’s brought a contemporary flair to the maison’s offer, as well as modernising traditional techniques, introducing men’s lines and, most important, expanding the idea of what hats can be.

“Before I arrived, hats were very much associated with the music scene – rock ’n’ roll and parties,” Royer explains. “When I arrived, I introduced a more urban idea of hat wearing, like more caps and bucket hats. I opened the way so that it became more about cities than parties.

“I wanted hats that would help people feel great – not just because a celebrity is wearing it, but for them to approach the hat in a more personal way that’s relevant to themselves. I work more with larger archetypes, like the girly girl or the geeky guy. There’s no muse. I really try to be up to date and to be in reality. I look at what they need or what they wear or what they could need to wear, say, the beret, which is huge now and very flattering.”

Why cling to a dream when reality already holds infinite possibility?

“You can’t get tired of making hats. There are always ideas,” Royer says. “One season you can work on PVC plastics, another on natural woollen ribbons and the hats won’t look the same at all. There’s the finishing of the felt you can work on. There’s Panama straw or raffia straw and it’s not the same fedora at all. The combinations are infinite.”

Spring/summer 2019 explores the depths of the sea and the creatures therein, from right at the top down to the very bottom, the ocean floor. Light blues, gold and beige mirror the reflection of the sun at the water’s surface. Slightly deeper depths show the corals and aquatic life – fish in all their myriad neon colours. Finally, deep sea – rock bottom, where it’s pitch black and materials glisten and shine to make themselves seen, which translates to patent leathers, reflective ribbons against dark straws and neoprene.

It’s a medium she’s had free rein to work with, without the constraints of morphology and pattern-making typical to fashion design. 

“I was seduced by the idea that you can focus on material, colours and shapes without really thinking of all the different things you do in clothing. In a way it’s very focused on the sociological aspect – personalities and style – so it’s more to do with silhouette, the message you want to give to the world, the mood of the day.

“For hats, you only have a few styles and three sizes, so it makes it easy. There are so many variations to the typical baseball cap, beret, boater hat, fedora, things like this. And it reflects everyone and what makes them different, special.”

Where she needed to massage a little was in the atelier itself. Métiers with a legacy of savoir-faire and craft often have difficulty adapting to the present, being never quite able to discard or disrupt the traditional way of creating the object. 

“I can’t be out of date so I live in the now, but the Maison Michel product is something where you need to consider the archive and the craftsmanship,” Royer says. “You have to consider that the people who make the hat have ancient ways of making the hat, so you have to move slowly with them and make them understand the world is actually different. That the way of making hats before is probably not as appropriate to what we need today.

“So we’re moving towards more supple and flexible material. We have waterproof felt for the rain and a [Hat on the Go] that we can roll. It was just out this summer and made from a paper straw from Japan – which you actually can roll. You have it in a pouch, it can go in your bag and then you travel with it. We really work together as a team to move forward.”

At the end of the day, moving forward is a matter of coming to terms with when to relinquish control and how to pick the right battles. Royer explains, “You have to know that your hat can’t be perfect forever. You have to work with it and if the brim gets a little bit wobbly, it’s fine, it’s a part of it. For the ones that need to stay very flat, like the boater hat, we place a special wire in the brim so it won’t be any trouble. But there’s really no need to be too precious.”