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The Kentucky Derby’s Official Hat Maker Shares Her Secrets

Believe it or not, the craft of couture hat making is still alive in America.

Mikelle Street

Mikelle Street

Images c

This article originally appeared on Creators.

Tucked away on 6th Avenue in the Garment District of New York City is a synagogue. The narrow building was constructed in 1948, creating a space for a congregation that had been meeting in an organized manner since 1893. The name of that $150,000 building? The Millinery Center Synagogue.

"The United States used to be filled with hat shops and millinery supply houses," Louisville based-milliner Jenny Pfanenstiel tells Creators. "In fact [they built the synagogue] because there were so many people working in the industry right there, they felt the need to build a it to support the workers." And though the community has greatly been reduced over the years, a few couture hat makers like Pfanenstiel, who this year was named as the first-ever official milliner of the Kentucky Derby Museum, continue to exist stateside.

"I thought I would make costumes for ballet and performance," Pfanenstiel says of her start. To do so, she picked up a degree in fashion design from the Art Institute of Colorado, eventually relocating to Chicago making costumes for Cirque du Soleil as well as movies and other theater productions. She even designed a Grammy dress for Margaret Cho. But a chance meeting with a milliner from New York, who happened to be visiting Chicago, set Pfanstiel on a different path.

To make her headpieces, Pfanenstiel, who operates Forme Millinery, employs an age old technique called blocking. For this, she molds fabric over wooden forms and then hand sews the pieces and their embellishments. Her past in fashion design certainly assisted with the sewing.

"I look at my approach as an art approach," the milliner explains. "It's why I enjoy it so much more than fashion design; I feel like it speaks more to me as a person. When I create I like to work with the material in my hands and allow it to create itself. I just assist it into becoming that shape. With fashion and with clothing you have to always be thinking about a neck hole and arm hole and how it will fit on a person where with my sculptural hats I don't even know how it's going to fit on the head or what's the front or the back sometimes until I'm done."

But Pfanenstiel recognizes she is part of a legacy of milliners. She feels connected to the milliners who came before her, working on the same exact wooden blocks she now uses—Pfanenstiel says she feels their "energy" coming through the forms. She also relates to a specific 20th century milliner named Lilly Dache.

The Manhattan based milliner ran a multi-story hat shop and workspace on Park Avenue and was one of the most prominent milliners of her time, working with Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. "I have a little shrine to her," Pfanenstiel admits, saying that she's bought old Dache hats, the icon's books and has met her daughter. But Pfanenstiel endeavors to inspire a new generation of American creators.

"I see it as my duty to keep this craft alive," she says. While that includes teaching workshops all over the world and talking about the history of hats while on tour with the Derby Museum, Pfanenstiel wants to do more. "One of the ways I'm going to expand is I'm in the process of opening an actual school. There is not a millinery school that exists in the United States anymore that's solely dedicated to millinery." Ideally, this new, modern establishment will include age old techniques like blocking, as well as courses on specific things like bridal hats, men's hats, couture millinery, and flat pattern work amongst other topics.

To learn more about Jenny Pfanenstiel, visit her website.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States. This month, we're covering Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Montana, and Arkansas. To learn more, click here .

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