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The Architect of Hats

The Architect of Hats

By Rachel Buttner

Heather Huey wears one of her handsewn hats in her downtown Manhattan showroom.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
For Heather Huey, FCLC ’02, handmade hats are not relics of fashion past.

From a corner in her parents’ living room in Queens, Huey fashions hats—from cloches and fedoras to far-out couture pieces—that have been featured in Elle and Surface magazines, and been worn by Grammy Award-winning soul singer Erykah Badu.

Recently, she has been working with Christian Siriano, the season-four winner of the reality TV show Project Runway, to create hats for his Fall 2009 New York Fashion Week show.

“I utilize both classic millinery techniques and experimental ones,” said Huey, a founding member of the Milliners Guild, a group of New York City hatmakers working to keep their trade alive. “You could say I’m ‘new school.’”

Huey’s calling to millinery, though, was not always clear.

As an undergraduate at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), she majored in visual arts with a concentration in architecture and a minor in art history. Colin Cathcart, her former professor and adviser, is not surprised that Huey is making her mark in the fashion world.

“She always was a marvelous thinker and had high standards for sculptural integrity,” said Cathcart, associate professor of architecture and associate director of the environmental studies program at FCLC. “And she was the best dressed architect in the class.”

Huey interned at Cathcart’s architecture firm, Kiss + Cathcart, during her junior year, but after graduating summa cum laude from FCLC in 2002, she decided a career in the industry would not be the most fulfilling outlet for her artistic vision. At the urgings of her sister, she registered for a basic sewing class and Millinery I at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in spring 2003.

Despite an initial ambivalence to millinery, Huey quickly discovered an aptitude for the craft and a connection between stitching hats and constructing buildings, both of which rely on a strong sense of composition, texture and structure.

“I’m a builder of form,” she said. “I think and design in three dimensions, considering every angle and curve to the overall statement I’m trying to make.”

Huey left FIT in 2004, determined to make it as a milliner.

“As far as the fashion business went, I soon found out I knew less than nothing,” she said. But Huey was willing to learn from mistakes. “It’s all about experience,” she said. And after a year, she introduced the Heather Huey hat collection at New York’s 2005 Couture Fashion Week, finally breaking into the biz. “It was like turning on a switch,” she said.

In the following year, a business relationship with blossomed when the online retailer contacted Huey to provide little cocktail hats for a dress sale campaign.

By Huey’s third year after FIT, she had found her hatter groove and her success snowballed. During a 2008 episode of the reality TV show Make Me a Supermodel, wannabe models donned Huey’s couture headpieces as they walked down the runway.

And when Project Runway’s Siriano needed big black hats—a Heather Huey trademark style—for his debut Bluefly collection of womenswear, Huey’s stylist was on hand at the collection’s photo shoot to recommend Huey, who raced from Queens to the shoot in Manhattan’s Garment District with her best hats in hand. “That is when Bluefly decided to sell my hats,” she said, adding that some of them are still available on the website.

She and Siriano continue to collaborate. Huey designed hats for Siriano’s show at Spring 2009 New York Fashion Week held last fall. And during Fall 2009 Fashion Week (Feb. 13–20) at Bryant Park in New York City, her hats will be featured in shows by Siriano, THUY and Sergio Davila.

To top it off Huey is still, for now, a one-woman operation. She is the designer, promoter, manager and, she said, “whatever else needs to be done for the Heather Huey label.”

Huey’s works—priced from $130 to $360 for everyday hats, up to $3,000 for her custom-made couture concoctions—are on display in a “humble showroom,” she said, in the back of the Chinatown Wellness Center in lower Manhattan, an herbal and acupuncture store, which her father co-owns.

Despite her recent success, Huey sees work to be done. “I want to leave my mark as an innovator in millinery, redefining the art of hat making,” she said. “Eventually I’ll get there.”

—Rachel Buttner is the assistant editor of FORDHAM magazine.

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