Not everyone can leave a career in banking to move to China and create designer hats, but that’s exactly what Beijing-based milliner Elisabeth Koch did six years ago—and she hasn’t looked back. She’s now the go-to hat designer for China’s top fashion magazines and celebrities, and you may have seen her work most recently on the cover of Vogue China’s December 2013 special-edition 100th issue with actress Shu Qi. Over the years, her pieces have been worn by celebrities such as Zhang Ziyi, Zhou Xun, Yao Chen, and Li Bingbing, and have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Tatler, Elle, and GQ, as well as in several blockbuster Chinese films. We caught up with Koch via email to discuss her creative process, her new showroom, and China’s growing fascination with bespoke hats.
You originally started out in finance, but then decided to go on a completely different path with millinery. What prompted the decision and why did you choose China as the location to start the business?
It may sound strange, but it makes total sense. I have always been making things with my hands from as far back as I can remember. Either out of Lego, clay, or making furniture and clothes for my Barbie dolls! When I was working in banking, I would come home and knit, sew, or draw, always creating, or cutting up something to make something else. I love it. After I met my husband, we decided to move to China together and start new jobs.
Where do you find the inspiration for your designs—do you factor in Chinese elements?
Of course, I factor in Chinese elements. Inspiration generally comes from everywhere. I have made hats using chopsticks or even inspired by the Beijing bird’s nest stadium. I was commissioned to make a series of hats for InterContinental Hotels & Resorts. Each hat had to represent a disappearing city image from a city in China where InterContinental had a hotel or resort. I made a panda hat, a pipa hat, a bridge, temple (complete with hanging lanterns), a black-faced spoonbill, and others. Eventually, the hats were sold by the hotel group at auction in Sanya for RMB 80,000 to wholly benefit the WWF.
What kinds of materials do you use to make your hats?
So many—too many to mention. The traditional materials we use are wool felt, sinamay and grosgrain ribbon, [and we] add feathers, genuine Swarovski elements, [or] antique items I personally select from my travels. I sometimes use plastics and wood but also silk, satin, and lace or even antique veiling from 1896 [that] I bought an auction lot from Antwerp from a millinery supplier that closed down.
What are the most typical characteristics of your clients?
They are women; they like beautiful creations, made of quality materials. They are daring and know what they want.
Have you seen Chinese demand for bespoke hats grow during your time here?
Absolutely. I also see more and more hats being worn by women at events and parties. It could be a simple turban-style hat or feathered fascinator; it looks so elegant and really is the finishing touch to any outfit.
At what types of occasions do Chinese customers wear your creations?
Many. It could be a cocktail party, an opening party, a wedding, horseraces, or polo games. We also make upscale winter hats to keep warm and look very chic.
Your hats have been featured in China’s top fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. What has been your favorite instance of seeing your designs in print?
Hands down, when my bespoke black hat appeared on the cover of Vogue‘s 100th issue shot by Mario Testino and worn by Shu Qi. There was a huge party to celebrate the 100th issue (December 2013) at Maison Boulud; the theme was black tie with gold.
Do you have any expansion plans or exciting upcoming projects?
We always do. We just moved into our new studio, showroom, and workshop on XingFuCun ZhongLu where industry professionals are more than welcome. We are also still very busy with the Elisabeth Koch Millinery Blue Label, which is a limited-edition line of occasion wear. We are expanding to set up in Mongolia after a very successful trip there, as well as many collaboration projects.