Award-winning designer Elise Gustilo has an exceptional gift for conjuring up unique hats and headpieces: true confections of feathers, flowers, fur, organza, suede, velvet and beyond… The Crea Team were very excited to interview her and discover her fascinating story.

Where did you study?

I was mainly self-taught in design and made my way into fashion through work experience and a few short courses.  After school, I completed a Foundation Diploma in Art & Design at Ravensbourne University London, but nearly embarked on a Colour & Polymer Chemistry career, after studying this at Leeds University. I was always passionate about arts and science and sought a way to combine these two areas. Following this route perhaps made it harder to break into fashion. However, I would say that work experience and perseverance were fundamental to my success.

When did you become excited about making hats?

I’d enjoyed crafting with different materials from a young age. After university I made headpieces off-the-cuff to add a theatrical feel to photoshoots for my portfolio. I loved this, but hadn’t considered millinery as a career, or known how to make headwear properly.

It was only after a few years of working in fashion and then taking up classes with Rose Cory [celebrated milliner and teacher] that the penny dropped. After quickly taking to millinery, I realised that with my fashion experience and skills in handcrafting, I could pursue hat making as a business.

What did you learn from Rose Cory?

The traditional millinery techniques – from block making, creating a variety of hat bases, finishes and embellishments. In particular, Rose showed us the couturier way to create sinamay hats [sinamay is a strong, light fabric made from the abaca tree, a banana palm] and how to make a silk-covered top hat – which looks deceptively simple, but is quite a long and tricky process!

Tell us about your time at Studio 104 and Ralph & Russo…

Studio 104 was a young entrepreneurial company when I joined. I worked on projects from concept and design to delivery and played a key role in contracts with some exciting 5* clients. Ralph & Russo was like fashion Disneyland for me – I was fortunate to work with incredibly talented people and on breath-taking pieces of work. The pace was superfast, but I was promoted very quickly, initially supporting the Creative Director, Tamara Ralph, and later the brand within the ready-to-wear team on the new collection.

How did the Cockpit Arts/Prince’s Trust Creative Careers Award change the way you work?

Being awarded a place on the programme completely changed my business practice and gave me the opportunity to refine my business model. I was given a dedicated space where I could produce my designs and hold consultations with clients. It also allowed me to test and evaluate new ideas at events such as Open Studios.

Cockpit Arts provided craft-specific support through coaching, workshops and a creative network, which complemented the support I received from my business mentor at The Prince’s Trust. Both helped me to gain confidence and clarity about my plans for growth, as well as establish a solid foundation and strong processes on which my business is built today.

Tell us more about Cockpit Arts…

Cockpit Arts is an award-winning social enterprise and the UK’s only creative business incubator for craftspeople. It helps them at the early stages of their business, as well as those who are more established, giving them tailor-made support.

One of the things I love about being at Cockpit Arts is the creative network. It has widened my scope of opportunities and makers gladly share their vast knowledge and experience to help each another, which works even if we are from different disciplines. I currently share a studio space with two jewellers, a print designer, a sculptural artist and puppet-maker and we’ve all helped each other in various ways.

Each maker is also assigned a business coach and Cockpit Arts regularly organises a range of workshops addressing current topics and common challenges. This gives makers a strong grounding and keeps them up to date with the ever-changing crafts landscape.

Which is your favourite hat?

That’s a difficult one! If I had to choose, I’d say the Romanova hat. I love it because it’s bold, daring and fun!

Tell us about the fabulous SeVeN collection, its inspiration and the final designs…

The Collection was inspired by the James Bond film From Russia with Love, with each hat designed around the personality of a Bond girl. I was interested in experimenting with leather as well as exploring textures, film romance and strong female characters. The contemporary and sculptural feel of the collection captured the essence of my millinery style seen today.

‘Solitaire’ was perhaps my most challenging but rewarding creation.  When the needle was poked through the suede and leather it left a permanent mark, so I had to take time and be confident where I placed the next stitch!

See the SeVeN collection at www.elisegustilo.com