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Alexander McQueen, SS05, “It's Only A Game” Gemma Ward
Alexander McQueen, SS05, “It's Only A Game”via

Philip Treacy: how to make runway-ruling hats

In honour of his new collection with M·A·C, the designer talks Ikea trips for Alexander McQueen and how Isabella Blow brought the two of them together

For Philip Treacy, hats and make-up aren’t all that different. In fact, they do much the same work. “They make the face look better!” he exclaims – the transformative power of cosmetics not unlike that of fashion. “Women have it lucky because they can look completely different with make-up.” So it’s only fitting that the Irish-born, London-made designer is releasing a cosmetics collection with M·A·C this month, inspired by three of his iconic hat creations (there’s even a trio of corresponding lipstick shades). Having previously teamed up with the likes of Proenza Schouler, Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, the make-up powerhouse is no stranger to working closely with fashion provocateurs.

With the launch of Savage Beauty at the V&A, it’s another of Treacy’s collaborations – his work with McQueen – that is once again in the spotlight. A partnership that began in 1996 and would last until the designer’s death, the hats it produced were responsible for some of the most extraordinary catwalk moments of the decade, and only enhanced by the incredible make-up looks that went with them. Incredibly, given the organic combination of clothes and hats that resulted, Treacy would work with Katy England on their development, and McQueen himself would only see the hats a couple of hours before the show. Would he ever be disappointed? “It just wasn’t possible to disappoint him,” says Treacy. “But it had to throw him.”

Today, Treacy’s designs are testament to the benefits of slow-time craftsmanship in a fashion world moving at an inexorable pace. Just don’t call him a milliner – that 18th century term doesn’t sit right with hats inspired by household bubble wrap, crafted from painted ram’s horns or bursting in a breathtaking swarm of butterflies. Journeying through the designs of one of fashion’s most enduring collaborations, we caught up with Treacy to find out how he does it.


“[Mine and McQueen’s] connection was Isabella, and she invented us. She was a very strong personality, and she made it possible. We were very different people: I was shy and he was shy, and she was our talking piece. So she would go around town saying, you've got to meet them! There is nobody like her now. People are encouraging, but not really. People are quite guarded. Those who are in a position to help young creative people are few and far between.”


“The territory that Alexander McQueen worked to was originality. Very few designers are trying to be original – they think they are, but they're not really. But he was! Originality occurs when you have a very strong singular person doing it. Where fashion becomes weaker is where it’s a collective – when there’s a team of people, it can become a little middle-of-the-road. Alexander worked with a team, but really it was always his point of view. The most powerful designers, in terms of powerful visions, are single minded, strong, tough characters – tough about their choices. It all came from him, completely.”


“Hat design, intrinsically, is about making something from nothing. You start with the 2-dimensional flat material and you turn it into 3 dimensions. You know you can make a hat out of anything. I started out when I left school working with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. People would imagine that he was this kind of uptight designer, but actually he wasn’t like that at all. He liked to treat the materials as just materials, whether they were some plastic rubbish that you'd find, or leftovers of bin bags. Besides, McQueen had an unorthodox approach. We blowtorched laundry basket lids for his Horn of Plenty show. There was a little bit of Ikea shopping going on, there! He wanted Irving Penn 50s imagery, via rubbish. There are lots of shapes around, that we live with every day, that are reminiscent of those classic hat looks. So he wanted to use those, in a kind of populist way.” 

“McQueen had an unorthodox approach. We blowtorched laundry basket lids for his Horn of Plenty show. There was a little bit of Ikea shopping going on, there!” – Philip Treacy


“London makes it happen. It’s the ultimate. We're all lucky because we get to travel to lots of amazing places, today, and very easily. But London is the most inspiring city to work from, because there's a fearlessness here that is part of the make-up of the people. And that isn't the same everywhere. Not everyone is concerned about selling thousands of black trousers. Designers here are encouraged to think in terms of originality. It’s part of the psyche. English people see hats in a completely different way to every other culture. I make hats for very conservative English people who think my hats are normal! People who would never wear an unusual outfit, but a hat? Yes. Originality is a currency here, and I like that about this country.”


“By default, my favourite design [in Savage Beauty] is the butterfly hat. That’s because it has become so associated with him, and the imagery from his shows. He was daring. He wasn't trying to be daring, he just didn't care what everyone else was doing. There was a fearlessness to his approach that made it possible for me to do those things. Everybody wants that kind of thing, of course, but they need to have clothes that match that. Alexander made very strong clothes – strong girls, strong accessories, strong shoes, strong everything. When you put it all together, it somehow worked quite well. You didn't think, what the fuck! It made it even better.”

The M·A·C Philip Treacy collection is available from 16 April.

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