If you have ever either attended or pored over photos of the hats worn to the Central Park Conservatory Hat Luncheon, chances are that you have seen one of Linda Hafner’s millinery creations. She trained in hat making, corsetry and shoe making at FIT while her first degree is in decorative arts restoration. There seems to be little she can’t, literally, turn her hand to, including making one of the most delicious chicken pot pies we’ve ever eaten (and a perfect apple pie too). She now works making all kinds of decorative objects for the store, Creel and Gow, whilst making hats in her spare time—wonderful, imaginative pieces inspired by the likes of Marie Antoinette and Fellini-esque characters.
We can’t find much about you online or anyplace else—why do keep yourself so hidden away?
Well I don’t like the way I photograph. You’re not going to find a lot of pictures of me on the internet. There are a handful—the last event, it was a hundred degrees and after a whole night, I’m sweating like you can’t believe and the guy says, “Oh let me take your picture.” I just could have died.
And in terms of promoting your work?
All word of mouth.
What is your background then?
So background. Grew up on Long Island … originally went to FIT for decorative arts restoration. Did not do anything really with that. Then I worked at Old Westbury Gardens where I did everything. It was like, “We need someone to be the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and I was like, “I can do that!” Security, front gate, sales, you name it, I did it. I [eventually] ended up at Sotheby’s.
Why did you want to learn how to restore things?
Because I collect and I’m good with my hands. I mean from the time I could drive my car, the first place I went to was an antique store and I got that lamp [on a nearby table] right there! I was better at crafting than fine arts. What they neglected to tell you [at college] was that you were lucky to get a $5 an hour job. Sotheby’s restoration paid $5 an hour. Sotheby’s [pay] in general is very low.
So at Sotheby’s you were restoring pieces?
No, I interviewed for the restoration department but I didn’t get the job. What I ended up doing was “floating” – you float from department to department so that they can figure out where you work best. I was there for maybe a month working the Pamela Harriman sale and then they said what we have is an opening in client data and that was it. I had given up a full time job with housing and benefits at Old Westbury Gardens for that—I felt like a bad joke had been played on me. But I took it … [and] I did really, really well. But in the evenings I would go to FIT and do things like take hat making courses and shoe making, mask making … you name it I took it.
So how did you get into making hats professionally?
Well, I wore them and then I realized if I sold just one good hat, that paid for a course! I was addicted at that point. I used to sell hats at the employee craft fair at Sotheby’s.
What kind of hats did you start out making?
I used to love doing fur-felt, which is actually felted fur. If you see a winter fedora, that’s fur-felt—the best ones are, that is. Then I learned how to work with straws. I loved the straws. I learned to work with sinamay. It’s a woven type of straw that comes on a roll like fabric. The other straws come almost like in the shape of a hat and you form and steam it over the block. With sinamay you can do really out-of-the-box type stuff like the crazy Marie Antoinette style.
How do you curl the edges like that?
You actually curl it by hand and cut it on the bias—your thumbs are like, raw by the end. You do get callouses after a while.
Apart from the practical uses of a hat, what is it would you say, that we like so much about hats?
Oh I think it completely changes the whole look of a person, completely changes the look.
It’s more of a European thing than an American thing, would you say? I suppose in Britain, you’ve got the royal family who helps drive the whole hat industry.
Fascinators, yeah, for the British. But in Spain and France, they still wear more the proper hats.
What is a fascinator?
It’s like the cocktail hat used to be years ago. More of a decorative piece, really. It’s a slower trend to come over to the US but you do see them at the Central Park Luncheon and a few horse races.
After you left Sotheby’s were you in a scary position of having to work freelance?
No, I ended up getting a job working for a millinary company. It was very, very hard because I had to make hats to someone else’s designs. Then when Christopher Gow and Jamie [Creel] opened up the new shop, I went to work for them. I knew Christopher from Sotheby’s and he was also my ballroom dance partner. I now do the hats on the side.
What is satisfying about making the hats as opposed to making the other decorative pieces for Creel and Gow?
Do you know what is so satisfying as opposed to clothing or other things? You can make a hat, literally in one day. The satisfaction and the turnaround is so fast. And you don’t have to size—everybody’s head is more or less the same. In school they made you draw everything first but I don’t work that way. It evolves. All of a sudden what happens is you’re creating one piece and you say, “Ooh, I like what’s going on here” and then you continue. It’s like if you’re taking a drive in the country and you say, ‘Let me go this way and see what’s going on there.’”
Why do you think we stopped wearing hats in the way people used to wear them, like every day as a matter of course?
They did say that in the 60s, it was because of the pouffey hairstyles—the hats collapsed the whole teased hair thing.
I thought it was just as life became less formal. I love those photos in which it’s clear that you just didn’t go out without your hat on.
I know! Every single person, men and women. I’m always thinking about hats. There’s always inspiration. But what I say is that I’m a jack of all trades.