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Mad About Hats

Hats are back and they are everywhere. In recent months, they’ve been at the Grammys and Paris Fashion Week and in Marc Jacobs’ fall collection. Yet for Danielle Gisiger, a North Fork milliner with a European following, the news that hats are in vogue is, well, old hat. In her book, berets and buckets and bonnets will never go out of style.

The Swiss-born Gisiger trained as a couturier at old-school ateliers in France and Switzerland, completing a series of arduous apprenticeships. Only after she had mastered the fine points of evening gowns, cocktail dresses and men’s tailoring did she go to fashion school in Basel, Switzerland. Her trajectory was typical of the rigorous approach to craftsmanship that prevails in certain European countries. Unlike in the U.S., where would-be designers embark on formal studies with little technical knowledge and are given leave to “create,” Gisiger was expected to have learned her craft before she saw the inside of a classroom.

All that training shows. Each of her hats takes at least two days to make. Felt must be softened by steaming, then molded and dried, softened once again and re-shaped. If Gisiger does her job right, the resultant hat will appear to have come into the world fully-formed, even though the work was done entirely by hand. She likes to quote one of her teachers, who used to say that when a hat leaves your studio, “it should look as though you glued it on someone’s head.” It’s hard, physical labor, Gisiger notes. To achieve such perfection takes a great deal of patience, skill, and vision, thus Gisiger’s creations, which range from $135 to $700, are not cheap. But if properly cared for, they will last for decades.

Ready-to-wear pieces are available at Black Whale, her vintage furniture shop in Jamesport. She also works with customers to make the hat of their dreams. “If someone sees a great hat on, say, Beyoncé, I can recreate it from a photo,” she says. And should you find a squashed thirty-year old fedora in your attic, don’t throw it away: Gisiger can help.

Her designs — sleek and sculptural with a dash of whimsy — recall that of Philip Treacy, whose hats are much-loved by the English upper classes and the British royal family. As a milliner, it’s only natural that Gisiger would feel an affinity for the UK, where hats are much-loved by high society. So when one of her Instagram fans suggested that she apply to this year’s London Hat Week — arguably the greatest hat show in the world — she didn’t hesitate. To her delight, Gisiger was one of 120 designers whose work was selected for the highly-competitive show. On account of that excellent exposure, she now has fans across the pond. Such late recognition is gratifying to Gisiger, who over the course of her long career has designed couture dresses for bold-faced names, run a clothing boutique in Sag Harbor, and worked as a stylist on fashion shoots. From her North Fork studio, regular pop-ups at Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, and via Instagram (@danigisiger), she plans to conquer the hat-wearing set on both sides of the Atlantic. “I won’t stop,” she says, “until I see the Queen Mother on the cover of Vogue.”