August 22 2014

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Off to the Races with Piers Atkinson


With all this talk about Gatsby and Punk, you may have forgotten that Saturday marks the 139th Kentucky Derby, which, in addition to being the biggest horse race of the year, is America’s foremost hat-stravaganza. However, whether you’re heading to Churchill Downs or celebrating at home with a mint julep, picking the appropriate race day hat can be a trying task. Luckily, we were able to get a hold of London-based milliner Piers Atkinson, whose something of an expert on the subject. This spring, Atkinson launches his second Racing Collection (above). Crafted from feathers and straw in a palette of black and white (a nod to My Fair Lady, he tells us), Atkinson’s range presents an updated, witty take on a time honored sartorial tradition. (Speaking of wit, his look book cleverly showcases the collection on a set of Barbie dolls.) “When a woman tries the right hat, suddenly she stands up straight, has a big grin on her face, and starts acting like a Hollywood movie star,” says Atkinson. “It’s quite instinctive, really.” Here, the milliner offers some tips for picking the perfect racing accouterment, and keeping your top-to-toe look from seeming old hat.

Formal, large brimmed hats seem the racing tradition, but sometimes they can feel a bit dated. Do you think it’s still modern to wear a giant hat?
Big brimmed hats don’t sell so much outside the races, but once the races come around, everyone goes mad. I like to do some really large brimmed hats this time of the year just to get people in the mood. And I don’t think a big brimmed hat is an age thing. It’s more about your body shape. So taller women can carry off a bigger brim, in my opinion. Saucer shapes are also quite popular, and they have big brims, but they can be worn tilted on the side of the head. Or you can get brims that kind of sweep up so you can see whoever’s underneath.

I think a lot of new hat wearers have a fear of looking silly in a big racing topper. What’s the key to feeling dramatic, but not cartoonish?
It’s all about confidence. People who wear bigger hats tend to have a sense of confidence, or to be more show off-y—in a nice way. If you’re confident, then you can afford to have a sense of humor. But most women don’t want to look ridiculous—they want to look chic, or sexy, or fabulous. For instance, if your hat is huge, and your trim is huge, and you’ve got feathers and roses, and then more roses, it starts to go into something that’s a little ridiculous. You can have drama, or a bright color or a wide brim, or a huge trim, or a fun detail, but not all of them at once. Just be chic. The main thing about wearing a hat, though, is that if you feel silly, you’re going to look silly. So get something that makes you feel nice.

Can you still stand out in the crowd at Churchill Downs with a small hat?
I don’t think you have to have a big brim for it to be a good racing hat. And when you have a smaller beret, you can have a bigger trim, and have a bit more fun with that. You also don’t want to get lost in the hat. The woman wears the hat, the hat doesn’t wear the woman!

What comes first: the hat or the dress?
Normally, my customers will come to me and they’ll have a dress and we’ll make a hat to match, but I think, really, if something grabs you, whether it’s a dress, or a hat, or a bag, then get it and follow up with the rest. Make sure you actually try the hat on, though. And enjoy yourself, because it’s a really fun thing to do.

Piers Atkinson’s Racing Collection will be available this month at his Harvey Nichols pop up, and online at His main collection is available in New York and L.A. at Opening Ceremony.



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