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Interview

 

An Interview with Wayne Wichern 

What do you enjoy most about your work? What are some of the challenges?   

The most obvious answer would be the creative aspects of the design work itself, but what has proved most interesting over time has been turning different creative experience and skills into a viable and vital artistic business. I wish that I had taken basic bookkeeping and business marketing classes when I was in high school or college, or maybe at least paid attention in the classes I did take of that nature. I am grateful I took at least a half-year of typing. The business of self-employment has been the most challenging. Taxes, employees, customers, cash flow, supplies, you name it, just when you feel that you understand your obligations it all changes. With all the demands of my business I've learned to appreciate what creative ability really means. In this work I am constantly challenged to develop new skills which lead me in new directions.  

What drew you to your work? Did you always love hats? 

I grew up on a farm in Cody, Wyoming. After graduating high school in 1975 I moved to Seattle, Washington where I enrolled in the Floral Design program at South Seattle Community College. After finishing the program I worked for several years in a floral shop in Bellingham, Washington. During that time I became interested in classical ballet. I was encouraged by my dance instructor to pursue more intensive and professional training in NYC. So, in May 1979, I packed up for NYC. I studied and trained for several years, eventually dancing in regional companies in upstate NYC, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. During several seasons of performance I found that I was much more interested in costume and fashion design than dance. In the 1985 I returned to Seattle and was able to find employment with several costume shops but found the seasonal economics frustrating. I eventually settled into a full time visual display position with the former Frederick and Nelson Department Stores. In tandem with my full time employment at Frederick & Nelson I began studying millinery with John Eaton. John was an acclaimed and successful Seattle milliner and a highly respected teacher as well. When the millinery industry declined in the mid sixties he closed his retail shop and continued his design interests in custom clothing, millinery, and teaching from his private studio.  

Describe your training as a milliner - what was the process, how long did it take? Were there particular aspects of your training that were especially useful to enable you to make such beautiful and creative hats? 

Frankly, I studied quite sporadically with John as I was working full time and had many interests besides my curious interest in millinery. In 1985 the market for millinery was still extremely depressed and depressing and I held no illusions that millinery design could be a viable or stable income. I didn't have any formal intentions; I simply enjoyed the idea of making hats. 

I worked with John for about two years during which time he developed several serious health complications. He had to stop teaching and it was likely he would not be able to teach for some time, if ever again. During a visit with him one day, I asked if he would be willing to let me supervise the group of students that had been attending classes, many of us had projects that remained unfinished when he stopped teaching. John remarked, "Wayne, I think you should buy this equipment and teach millinery yourself." So I did, consequently, I am primarily self-taught. I always acknowledge that John taught me the basics of millinery and inspired the rest. John was a very inspirational, creative and dedicated teacher. He passed away many years ago now and I and others miss him dearly. I have always worked to emulate his generous style in my own teaching. What John gave me when he advised me to teach others, was an extremely rich environment for my own learning. In my experience there is nothing more useful to a teacher than working right along with students to develop new ideas or to solve a design problem.

 Growing up on a farm in Wyoming hasn't hurt either. I am extremely resourceful. Much of the equipment needed to work in the hat business is invented on the spot or found and reinvented. Daria Wheatley, a milliner who has worked with me for many years refers to me as the “cowboy contractor”. In many ways being located on the West Coast and relying on local markets for supplies has made me quite versatile. I order certain supplies from the millinery suppliers back East, but not having everything at my fingertips has required a certain honing of my creative skills using what is local and at hand. 

What would you describe as your typical client and typical hat? Do you make hats for men as well as women - if so what percentage of your business is for men? What is your ideal commission or client to work with? 

I wouldn’t say I have a typical client or that I make a typical hat. My customers are for looking for the interesting and unusual, the innovative and elegant, sometimes the flamboyant. By the time someone has searched me out they have exhausted the typical. There are, however, typical events many of my clients desire hats for, weddings and anniversaries, teas and parties, theater and fashion events. Nearly all my work as a designer is for women. At this point in my "career" I would define myself as a Collection Designer, one who sells to private clients, smaller stores and boutiques that maintain a close connection to the interests and needs of their select customers. I do some work for gentlemen, such as a hat in an unusual color or a fanciful costume hat. The men's hat business is really another type of business and requires very specific equipment and techniques.

I do costume work for various theater productions when called upon, though I don't seek it out. Most theaters have a roster of talented theater milliners they call on or contract on a seasonal basis. Theater milliners develop many skills, as they are rarely employed full time.

 What (or who) inspires your work? Do you have sources that you go to for "creative recharging"? 

Leaves, I have an interesting thing for leaves and other natural things like seedpods, feathers, shells. You can see leaves interpreted in many in my hat trims. I have an interesting collection of hat blocks, which inspire me as well. Most of these blocks are quite old and therefore considerably dated for contemporary design work. The inspiration comes with the challenge to use these old and familiar blocks in new and interesting ways.  

People or rather personalities interest and inspire me. I have a wonderful client who has rather flamboyant taste. I was inspired to make a hat for her, without discussing it first. I planned to take the hat with me to a trunk show and she would see it there. Well I was a bit dashed as she was not able to make the event. So I called her when I returned and suggested that I send the hat to her on approval. When I mentioned that the hat was red with black trim she said " Oh my dear, I don't wear red". I suggested that I send the hat anyway, she could try it on and if she liked the style, I would make it in a color she would wear. The day she received the hat she called me to say  "Wayne, This morning, I opened the box and pulled out this beautiful hat thinking, I don't wear red". "Well my dear, I have tried the hat on and I haven't taken it off all day, in fact I am calling you on my cell phone from Nordstrom. I'm looking for an outfit to go with it. Everyone has told me that I look wonderful, so I guess do I wear red".

Meeting with a client, seeing the outfit, discussing the events or plans for the wearing of the hat, will generate most of my design direction. Sometimes just the materials I happen to be working with. I rarely draw or sketch preferring to let the materials find their way into a hat. I have come to think of myself as a sculptor.  

We are focusing on custom work and the preservation of certain art forms. Tell me some of the defining characteristics that make a hand shaped Wayne Wichern creation very different from a "manufactured" hat. 

A “manufactured hat” or “machine blocked hat” is usually rather obvious in design and stiff in styling, and will only fit a few people both in the actual fit and the design proportions.

 As a custom designer it is my job and requires my skills to accommodate for a variety of sizes and shapes of people. When you work with a designer, something most people are not familiar with today, you are employing that designer’s expert skills and experience. You will probably pay more for the handcrafted hat. There are many talented independent designers who sell direct and through specialty stores across the country who’s job it is to create a wonderful hat for anyone who truly desires to wear a hat.

Two common remarks I hear when people are discussing hats are, "Oh, I can't wear hats, they never look good on me" or "I can't wear a hat because I can’t find one to fit me." Typically this is an excuse people employ to excuse themselves from wearing a hat. Fifty to sixty years ago people were more familiar with custom work and educated about what looked good and why it did. The most difficult problem I encounter as an independent designer is our cultures lack of education and knowledge about creative design and how it needs to be priced to be viable vital business. Expect to pay a bit more and you will get a great hat.

I'm asking all the artists I'm profiling this question and you can answer as it specifically applies to your work or in broader terms - When ordering custom work what can customers do to make the end results more successful?

I encourage my clients to describe the intended use of the hat we are going to create. Is it for a specific event and worn infrequently or is the hat for more frequent fashionable or casual wear? I always advise them to bring in what they plan to wear with the hat or we at least discuss wardrobe. We discuss how they plan to wear their hair. If they wear glasses this will make a difference in determining an appropriate hat shape.

A custom or ready-made hat in a different color or trim will take a little time, please plan for that. Shop around the area stores and educate yourself to hats on the market. After you have selected and picked up your hat take some time to wear it with your outfit, practice if you will. The hat being worn should not be self-conscious. Many people remark that they are uncomfortable wearing a hat because people will look at them. Well yes, they will and usually they will comment. Be prepared to thank them graciously. This is why in part people who wear hats wear hats. In the not to distant past people would have looked at you if you didn't have a hat on… In a recent GQ article the writer stated “If you don't want to be noticed certainly don't wear a hat”.

If someone wakes up from their office job tomorrow and decides they too want to be a milliner- what is the process - where do people get training in Seattle - is it still primarily a process of going through an apprenticeship? 

I teach millinery classes throughout the year at Cańada College in Redwood City and privately in my studio. I will say this about the millinery profession; the hardest part of learning to be a milliner is not the making of hats. It is the business of self-employment. There is not a large commercial millinery design infrastructure or industrial base with jobs ready and waiting once you are trained. There might be a few more obvious opportunities in the East, but not in the West. Interestingly enough there is a rather large group of hat designers here on the West Coast. For most it is a part of their income and they are working to increase the percentage. I have been mostly self-employed by my millinery efforts for the last 12 years. From time to time I have needed to support my income with temporary or part time employment.

I assume you sell directly to the public as well as retail - where can people buy your hats and how does the process work? How do you like people to connect with you to order a hat - call first? Give our readers an idea of the prices with a range that you are comfortable sharing. In other words, I decide that I must have a Wayne Wichern hat to wear to my niece's baptism in July - what can I expect to pay? How long should I allow for you to make it?

Generally retail prices for my work range from $135.00 to $375.00. My custom hat prices also fall into this range depending on the design, materials and time, more theatrical expressions would be priced higher.

I can usually work up a hat for someone in less than two weeks depending on the season and availability of materials. They can contact me by phone, or email. I would encourage them to visit the stores that I mention on my website as well.

What are ways for people to encourage and support wonderful and unique businesses like your's?

Screw up their courage and WEAR A HAT. Investigate your local milliners and specialty stores that  carry quality millinery and try on a few hats. Don't be put off by prices, these will be hand-blocked hats. Take your time, enjoy the change of pace and expand the experience of your personality. Go to tea, lunch or dinner with friends, suggest that everyone wear a hat, not just any old hat, wear a great hat. If your friends don't cotton to the idea, get new friends… Turn off your cell phone and your computer, get out there and look for an interesting hat and wear it, believe me you will find that you are more interesting to others as well as yourself.

Many local milliners have seasonal collection or gallery hat shows. Call, write or email me and I will try to clue you in to milliners in your area. I can also include your name on our mailing list for future events.

Who enjoys wearing Wayne Wichern hats (this is your opportunity to name drop) and for what occasions?  

In the last year I have created 5 hats that will be attending 5 different weddings in England. I have heard from three of my five clients that they were wearing the nicest hats. I find this quite amusing because women in England have the pick of the world millinery design market.  Of course, I expect to hear the same remark from the other two clients when they return.

Describe the process of making a hat in general terms - how do you begin, how long does it take, how do you decide what materials to use. With custom work - do you measure the customer's head first and study their features - how do you match the hat to the person and their sense of style?

I decide on a shape based on the blocks (wooden hat forms or molds) in my collection. Then using steam, water or heat I block the felt, straw, or material over the wood form. This need to dry for the required time usually 24 hours. Hats are created in stages so I block several designs and while those are drying I work on trimming or embellishing others. After the designs dry I remove them from the blocks and cut away any unneeded selvedge. I save this scrap for future trimming ideas, braids, leaves, flowers, etc. A headsize ribbon is sewn in and I proceed with the trimming or embellishment of the hat. This may take several days as the hat and trim materials need to gestate if the trim wasn't determined in advance.