The Fashion Law talked recently with the extraordinarily talented milliner Albertus Swanepoel. He is responsible for the hats in everyone's runway shows. To name a few: Carolina Herrera, Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs. In addition to his runway and namesake collections, his has recently designed collections for J. Crew (some of which is sold out!) and Target. He's an incredible talent with a career spanning from award winning ready-to-wear designer in his native South Africa to being named a runner up in 2008's CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. He talks to us about hats, McQueen and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.
The Fashion Law: Tell me a little bit about your brand, since business, now more than ever, is focused on branding?
: I've been making hats for almost 19 years, but only formed a company in 2006 when I had enough work to only do this. I totally understand the importance of branding, but as a very small company, I dont have any budget to have a PR company, and I'm not the pushiest person myself! However, since my win in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2008, my name got out there to editors and stylists and so I've been lucky to have them contact me to request pieces. I also have a very good sales director who places my hats in very particular key stores to build the image of my brand. I'd like to see my hats as modern, yet wearable, and thus relevant in the society and hopefully, I have my own vision and aesthetic.
TFL: Congratulations on your collections with J. Crew and Target (and the Gap awhile back)! How did those come about and what do gain from working with these retailers?
: Thank you! The Gap collaboration was part of my prize for the VFF competition. My mentors were Andy and Kate Spade (also part of my prize) and they introduced me to J. Crew. Target contacted me and that is how that happened. It's been really wonderful working with these huge companies, to still have control over quality and have their PR machines behind the ventures. Target had a huge advertising budget and so it has been amazing for me to have my name out there on such a big scale.
To me the scary part is that the manufacturing companies they used are actually able to make pretty complicated designs for so little money. It pushes me harder to always do better and stay one step ahead.
TFL: I'd love to know about any reflections on your experience with the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. Congratulations on that achievement, as well!
: The VFF was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. When you win a prize like that, one has the support of Vogue and the CFDA behind you, which is invaluable. It opened so many doors for me and did put my brand on a higher level, so to speak. It was a very stressful process entering and during the competition, and I really never thought I'd be one of the winners. The press called me the "dark horse" at that time!
Swanepoel (right) and the other 2008 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund
Alexander Wang and Vena Cava's Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai
TFL: The VFF really is an amazing program! Now that you are in the public eye so much, do you ever worry about others stealing/replicating your designs? I only ask this because I am fashion lawyer in training and am very pro-protection for original fashion designs!
: Frankly, I'm quite flattered when copied. Personally, I think there are few very original ideas left in this world (except if you are Rei Kawabuko or the late McQueen).. so everyone gets inspired.... I dont like blatant copies, but an inspired nod to someone else's work is ok...Personally, I dont really look at fashion magazines, because it is too easy then to be influenced.
TFL: I agree. I think influence as distinguished from blatant knockoffs is a positive aspect of fashion! What I think is so admirable about you is that despite constantly raising the bar and innovating, you still manage to be so consistent, which must be why people love working with you! What is it about the collaborations that keeps you interested and motivated?
: I really love doing all the runway work. It is usually a technical challenge to me (as designers have very different fabrics and silhouettes they want to achieve than a run of the mill hat) and so it keeps me on my toes. As mentioned, my wholesale business is really small, so it has become a part of my business that is important to me for revenue; also to keep my name out there and be associated with these top tier designers. I would love it if my own business could maintain itself, but it's not possible at the moment.
TFL: That may be a blessing in disguise because a lot of designers would certainly be at a loss if you stopped doing runway shows. You have worked with so many designers and you have such a range. The hats with the long feathers that you did for Carolina Herrera F/W 2008 were to die for! (Just to name one!) You must have so many exciting things in the works. What are you working on now?
: I am currently working on my new Fall 2012 collection, and already have a few designers that I'm collaborating with. I might be doing the hats for Tod's show in Milan in February, so that will be amazing, as it will be my first international show.