Linda Hafner

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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.

Handmade corsets, made from woven stainless steel and silk, adorn the dress forms.
Linda’s fascination with the hair of Marie Antoinette was the inspiration behind this elaborate fascinator.

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.

An antique framed photo sits on an embroidered chair, the result of when one runs out of wall space, admits Linda.
An antique Belgian phone was purchased at one of the New York Antique Pier Shows.
A “framed” mask was purchased during a 40th birthday celebration in Venice. The mask-maker, Sergio from La Bottega dei Mascareri, can be found at the bottom of the Rialto Bridge. Linda covered the shelf in green velvet, using a technique called gainage. She makes a blue velvet version at Creel and Gow.
Antique suitcases stacked above a trunk desk provide the constant inspiration to travel.
A rainbow of jackets to grab-and-go on the way out the front door.
An addiction to Arza bags (made in Brooklyn). “The artist is an enabler!” exclaims Linda.

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.

A view of the hallway leading to the back room; Pepe le Pew inspired the taxidermy skunk doing a handstand atop a framed photo of the Eiffel Tower
Years of collecting, shells as well as antiques, has provided a visual treat for the eyes. A favorite piece in the bathroom is the chaise percée, known as a caned toilet seat.
Bathroom birdie.
A view of the living room. “I’m happily a border hoarder,” admits Linda.
The taxidermy groundhog (imitating an otter) was from Creel and Gow.
“Inspiration … Paris!!!” says Linda.

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.

The start of what will be a barrister’s wig.
A detail of a barrister’s wig in progress.
The canopy bed, from Anthropologie, overlooks The Gardens of Versailles photographic wallpaper from PIXERS.
“Any excuse will do! Why wait for New Year’s Eve to wear one of these St Germain New Year’s Eve hats?”
Tools of the trade. Antique sewing machines are as pleasing to the eye as they are useful.
Antique hat block crowns, still in use.
Antique 5-piece puzzle hat blocks, still in use.
Lesley and Sian modeling two of Linda’s creations.

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.

Family photos in antique frames adorn the fireplace mantel and “frame” the taxidermy zebra.
Organized kitchen chaos, the result of years of collecting; the butcher table was purchased from Anthropologie; the giant Florentine pepper mills were rescued from the garbage.
Linda cooked us this scrumptious chicken pot pie.
The view from the kitchen into the hallway.
A hot air balloon chandelier floats above the dining room.

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?

A view into the living room from the dining room.
A deer skull with antlers is arranged on an antique butcher’s block.
Tea time for doggies, an homage to Wallis Simpson.

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.

An upholstered child’s chair, now a bed for Olive, one of Linda’s four cats.

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