I came across the milliner/artist Susanne Lewest at the Farmer's market, Leopardstown a few years ago. I fell in love with her hats. Today Susanne concentrates on her painting but here is a hint of what she is about.
The milliner is a scavenger by trade and a visit to Susanne Lewest’s studio confirms this.
It is a maze of hat boxes, threads, spools, swathes of various fabric, stuff that I can’t quite
figure out…snakeskin, swirls of snip-offs that used to be something else, feathers, fishing
twine, coconut palms, beachcomb finds, sea-smoothed wood, leather sisal…
I begin to fear for my leather bag dropped nonchalantly somewhere on entry!!
In a trade that is dying Susanne says, “I want to make the hat casual again.”
Your granny probably had a few hats, your mother fewer, but I remember the “hat for
life” idea that lurks somewhere in my cellular memory. So what makes her think she can
do it? Challenge and transform the cultural prejudices of a nation?
where she studied design and model shaping at the Lette Verein Schule, Berlin
Susanne perfected her craft with famous Parisien milliner Jean Barthet. She speaks about
her passion in a language that seduces. Her designs she says, “grow from the fabrics
rather than an idea. The act of making becomes an organic process.” While she feels
inspired by the hats of the 20’s and 30’s, the cloche and the torque of the
her relationship with her material is dynamic.
“The hat literally grows under my fingers.”
Sisal lends itself to the big hat for the classical occasion…what she calls the “chapeau
dame”. Velvets are more at home with the cloche or the torque. Linen is ubiquitous.
Susanne has her own vocabulary to describe her hats that have evolved from the thirties.
The “année trente” looks like it should be accompanied by a vintage racing car. The
peaked cap takes on a new perspective with the “visière drappée,” incorporating a pleated
bandeau to give it extra volume. The “visière foulard” saves you the expense of a hair
extension, with its scarf effect and illusion of sidelocks. The “huitre” or oyster is her
name for a cheeky linen torque with a shell-like side addition. Her latest creation the
“gruyère” started with the desire to make holes in linen!
Hats in various stages of embryo are strewn about her studio. She pulls on a coconut
palm creation still in draft. “One or two more stages to get through here,” she says. To me
it looks finished apart from the hat pins on its crown that shine menacingly.
“I’m not sure what will happen next,” she adds, “but it will come…the dénouement.”
She would need a magnet for all the pins she drops. And these are not just ordinary pins.
Embelleurs are longer, thicker and a lot more deadly than your commoner garden pin.
Scraps of fabric fly as she snips and fashions her material to the purr of Singer and the
hiss of iron. Ironing a hat is a task that should come with an indemnity claim. She used to
bur n her fingers frequently, ironing out those tiny seams. That’s why every milliner does
come with a wooden ironing board, two feet by two, on her lap where she props her hat
moule, her iron and her hat in the making.
I’m witnessing here the first stage of hat craft: the laying out, the cutting- sew, swivel,
iron, snip, repeat. She moves swiftly, economically through her repertoire of skills. The
smell of aperture lingers: a hospital twang, the substance that transforms limp cloth into
“To see a hat that I have created find the head to suit…it gives me great pleasure.”
With a head of unruly locks that most hats just pop off or, worse still, stay on-leaving me
with a suspicious looking bump that could be hidden antennae- I am a challenge to any
milliner. But with Susanne’s trained eye a visière drappée or, in plain English, a visor,
allows me to spin my deviant locks in a swirl over my head, a natural and organic
addition to the creation itself.
A gallette or beret encourages sipping fresh coffee and savouring French baguettes, even
on not so sunny terraces, while the cloche necessitates a pouring over Mrs Dalloway and
a longing for far off horizons and wide oceanic spaces. I’m on the doorstep on my way
out and have forgotten the bag. Perhaps a black leather helmet to go with the convertible
vintage sportscar? Why not !!