The designer shares her inspirations and what hat she’d make for the Georgetown Cupcake founders.
After being told that hats were de rigueur for a friend’s Parisian wedding, Melissa Vap, 35,searched in vain for chic options. When she realized she’d have to wait until she landed in the fashion capital of the world itself to find a suitable headpiece, she decided to take matters into her own hands – literally – and began crafting her own designs. Now, the Georgetown milliner has become the go-to source for Washington women in need of handcrafted hats and fascinators for all occasions from cocktail parties to horse races.
Washington Life: Tell us about your background and how you became interested in designing hats.
Melissa Vap: I am pretty much self-taught. I went to Princeton for undergrad and started in engineering, went into finance and now I’m engineering hats! After I attended a wedding in Paris, where everyone was wearing adorable hats that showed their personalities and individual styles, I started experimenting with hat design, just for myself. But when you really enjoy doing something you want to do more and more of it.
WL: When did hat designing go from a hobby to a business for you?
MV: The first time I thought about it as a business was when I had someone I didn’t know at all get my number, call me up and say I hear you design and make hats. I thought, wow, yes I really do that. Up until then it had been for myself, my mother, sister-in-law and friends, but when someone was referred to me, I thought it could be more.
WL: Describe your design process.
MV: I am not a planner. I start off with an idea but by the end it may be totally different than what I first envisioned. I am very spatial and I like to experiment with designs. I’ll try something and then completely undo it and remake it if I don’t like it. But there is a process you have to go through when it comes to physically making the hats. You need to mold the hat first, especially if you are starting with a flat material, so you work the material and sculpt it to what you want. Then you get to play around with the trims, finishing touches and adornments. It may be feathers or flowers or sparkles and they all add to the personality of the hat. Lastly you need to decide on the placement of the hat. Placement is crucial, as improper placement can completely throw the hat out of balance, and you need to plan your design around the placement.
WL: Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
MV: Years ago I did ballet and figure skating and something that I learned from both was the value of linear looks. The lines are so beautiful from the toe of a dancer all they way up to her hands and head. I want my hats to follow that line, to extend the natural line of a person and make them appear taller, like a dancer. Most of my hats are named after ballet moves for that reason, because the stage and performances conjure up such vivid imagery for me. I can be putting on an outfit – little t-shirt and jeans – to go to the bar around the corner and think this is boring, what could make it better? I try to think of the everyday element and how I can make my hats work for everyday use to add that unexpected, but elegant, element to an outfit. I design for jeans and t-shirts just as much as a pretty garden dress.
WL: Are there any local events that are big for you business wise?
MV: Gold Cup is a big one. Everyone wears hats and recently I’ve seen them go from the cute sun hats to more styled, fashion pieces/ I think women have gone from saying I want to look cute to making more of a statement with their hat and wanting to show their personality through their choice, which is very exciting for me. New Years is always busy too, because you have clients who want more evening, glittery headpieces that are angular and small. I’d say April through July is my busiest time.
WL: What Washington lady would you love to design for, and what would you make her?
MV: The Georgetown Cupcake founders, Katherine Kallinis Berman and Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne, as I really admire how they’ve built their business. I think something in a crisp red, straw material with poppy accents would work for them.
A condensed version of this Q&A appeared in our March 2013 issue.