THE MILLINER’S TALE
Sahar Freemantle, who produces hand-made hats in a Marylebone studio, talks to the Journal about the enduring power of millinery and the challenges of creating authentic costumes for Downton Abbey
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili
I’m not a hat person. No, really. Even bobble hats—an indignity I suffer only when the alternative is frostbite—reduce me to an 11-year-old boy on his first day of secondary school. It’s not that I don’t admire them: the wide-brimmed fedoras lunching al fresco on Marylebone Lane; the cute berets of springtime; the Duchess of Cambridge’s range of pillboxes. But my head is to hats what Lady Gaga was to that fillet of beef she wore to the MTV awards. It’s difficult to know which comes off worst.
So I have to smile when, upon my asking Sahar Freemantle what her favourite part of being a milliner is, she replies, “When they come in and say to me, ‘I’m really not a hat person.’”
“They try something on, just for a laugh really—and then they see something,” she continues. “They have this sudden sense of total elegance. It’s amazing to witness.” Well, I say, rather sheepishly, the thing is—I’m not much of a hat person myself.
I wait for her to jump up, seize her nearest hat—a powder blue pillbox with a net veil—and pop it on my head triumphantly. Instead, she smiles warmly. “Maybe we’ll have a look later. It’s often about finding the right hat and wearing it in the right way.” The big, blowsy hats you’ll find in certain department stores are nothing to go by. “They aren’t made to suit anyone. They are mass manufactured. But most hats crafted by a milliner are made to complement the wearer. At least, I would hope they would be.”
Elegance and creativity
Sahar is a woman on a mission: to find the elegance and creativity in everyone who meets her, and then use her hats to bring it out. “I believe everyone is beautiful, and everyone is creative.” Coming from most people, this would sound trite, but on Sahar’s lips the sentiment works—perhaps because she addresses it in such a practical and passionate way. “What I love about a hat is that it’s its own thing: a cross between costume and couture and art and fashion,” she enthuses. “It really completes an outfit.” The sense of empowerment and style a good hat brings to the wearer is “an amazing thing to offer a lady at any age”.
She’s been working in Marylebone for over a year now, in a studio just off Chiltern Street. At the time of writing, it’s being refurbished, so we meet in her flat in Enfield, where she’s working from home. Her living room is a riot of colour: feathers, cotton spools, fabrics, flowers both fake and real—and hats. Hats hang from the walls, perch on hat stands and adorn chests of drawers, like birds in an aviary. Yet while she’s itching to get back to her studio, this state of affairs is not unusual for Sahar. Indeed, for the first decade or so of her career as a milliner, living in a flat surrounded by hats in varying stages of completion was the norm.
“I came to London after finishing my degree in costume design in Edinburgh, and like most creatives quickly realised I needed a regular job if I was to actually live here.” She took an admin role at University College London, and dedicated her evenings and weekends to building Sahar Millinery. “I wasn’t making any money, but I was just about covering the cost of living and my hat materials.”
Millinery’s an expensive business, and demand is not what it once was. Gone are the days when hats were a daily thing and no lady worth her smelling salts would be seen outside without one; these days it’s high days, holidays or weddings—and even wedding hats are no longer de rigueur. “One of my suppliers was telling me recently that they used to do ribbon runs three times a day to all the different hat manufacturers in Luton. These days, it’s once a week, and they’ve had to branch out into other supplies, as there’s not enough trade in ribbons.”
No longer a daily affair
Fortunately for Sahar, the British social calendar is still peppered with occasions in which hats are expected, if no longer obligatory for women. Henley regatta, Glyndebourne, Ascot and Cheltenham and, of course, any occasion involving the royal family keep Sahar in business. “It ain’t nothing like it used to be,” she acknowledges readily, “but then I wasn’t alive back when wearing hats was a daily affair.” Women today often get in touch when they’re “going to the Queen’s garden party, or receiving an award from a royal,” she continues.
Sometimes they’re looking for something bespoke, fashioned and developed to go with a particular outfit; sometimes they’ll head to the ready-made collection you find on her website. “I’ve tried those hats on a lot of different people. I’ve sold them in pop-up shops, got feedback and tweaked them and tweaked them,” she explains. The result is a range of hats with which anyone from your teenage niece to your great aunt Mildred can get involved.
She picks up the powder pillbox. “The thing is, I don’t want my hats to be worn once and then sit in a box. I want them to be worn again and again,” she says earnestly, “to be passed down from mother to daughter.” It’s why her colours are as they are, she continues: dazzling, but ever so slightly muted, ensuring they’re “easy to match to various outfits. The biggest honour for me is when someone who might not otherwise buy a hat saves up and spends their hard-earned money on what I create.” It’s a far cry from the attitude taken by the Crawleys in Downton Abbey, for whom Sahar made hats in the second series. “In the early 20th century, upper class woman would wear a hat once and never repeat it,” she smiles wonderingly. Yet having studied costume design at university, Sahar rather enjoyed returning to that rarefied fantasy world.
She spent hours—days, even, on the historical research. “Anna Robbins the costume designer is really into historical accuracy. She even wanted them made the same way as they would have been made back then.” Fortunately for Sahar, the world of millinery hasn’t really changed a great deal since the 1900s—with the obvious, punishing exception of the sewing machine, which Anna insisted she do without: “Hand-sewing all the trimmings was extremely hard work.”
Art, fashion and nature
Still, even with her sturdy Singer sat at her side, Sahar’s is a fiddly, hands-on profession. A new hat can take her anything from a couple of hours to weeks to assemble. “Those with the butterflies—the process of sourcing, rehydrating the insects and pinning them on takes days,” she says, pointing to a row of hats strewn with delicately beautiful insects: a synergy of art, fashion and nature.
It was Philip Treacy who, in his 2008 collaboration with Alexander McQueen, pioneered the butterfly hat. “Now everyone is doing it,” says Sahar. “He has been hugely influential.” Nevertheless, there remains something irreducibly ‘Sahar’ about the range of hats the milliner has, with tongue in cheek, dubbed Ugly Lovely. “My first range, Sahar Millinery, is really about shapes which complement the wearer—about beautiful silhouettes and vintage styles. Ugly Lovely is more questioning,” she explains. “It’s about taking things in nature which aren’t traditionally perceived to be beautiful and finding the beauty in them.” By adorning her fine hats with beetles, butterflies and bird skulls, Sahar forces us to rethink what ‘beauty’ is.
Naturally, having spent long days finding subtle beauty in bugs, discerning the far more obvious beauty in potential customers comes to Sahar easily. Walking the streets in Marylebone with our photographer, hats in hand, her ability to match hats to characters becomes quickly apparent. These are women she has never met, never even seen before, yet the moment the hat hits their head, something happens. “Get the right colour, outfit and shape, and you get a sense of total confidence. It is like a coming alive.” Of course, the location helps. “I don’t know quite why it is, but there is something about Marylebone that suits my work, more than anywhere else.” She can’t imagine her hats going down as well in Sloane Square, for example—or even Hackney, where she first started out. “Hackney was brilliant for creativity, but Marylebone—I don’t know. It’s creative, and the women are stylish, but they also have a real sense of class.”
Captivated though she clearly is by nature, Sahar’s inspiration comes from London. “Brick Lane, the V&A, markets—just London generally is an amazing, exciting well of creativity.” Her materials come from a host of millinery suppliers, vintage shops, textile fairs and—in the case of Ugly Lovely—roadkill and a friend of hers who works at a butterfly farm. “They’re all ethically sourced. The magpies are roadkill, the butterflies and bugs died naturally.”
Doing the right thing
A self-described “spiritual” person, treating people, animals and herself with respect is paramount. “It is difficult in London,” she confesses. “There are so many times when I’ve wanted to give it all up. I’ve done Landmark courses, read loads of books about self-help and mindfulness, and I am in the process of setting up a group of creative people with a sole view of supporting each other. I’ve had to work really hard on positivity. But with every year that goes by I get fewer of those moments where I want to chuck it all in, and more of those moments that confirm I am doing the right thing with my life.”
I check my watch. The problem with Enfield is that the trains are only every half an hour—and it turns out I’ve just missed one. Still, this leaves Sahar ample time to put her millinery where her mouth is and address my previously confessed aversion to hats. “Which one takes your fancy?” she says, gesturing to the hat stand—and I pick up an army green beret with three gold spikes. It’s about 250 times too cool for me. “Do you mind trying this?” Sahar says gently, picking out the powder blue pillbox with the veil—and I brace myself. “I think it will set off your skin tone and your pink shirt,” she explains. “Alright”.
I turn back to the mirror—and to my surprise, rather like what I see there. I look... “elegant!” Sahar exclaims happily. “I thought that would suit you.” And while I’m no Duchess Kate or Meghan Markle, I have to admit that she’s right.