Fiona Bennett: "A hat is the icing on the cake."



For a quarter of a century, Fiona Bennett has busily been designing hats for weddings, cocktail parties, and the theater. Recently, she has also started her own label in high quality knitwear.

When the light is just right, the large shop window on Potsdamer Strasse reflects the bright lights of the Wintergarten variety theatre across the road. Through the pane, several women dressed in identical outfits can be seen industriously plying their handicraft. With their hair tucked back, they all wear dark aprons over their whites blouses and a dark scarf around their necks as they busily curl feathers, take measurements, and sew. Besides providing inspiration to those on either side of the glass, the big window manifests Fiona Bennett’s intention to make her creative processes more transparent. None of her earlier premises came close to providing nearly as much clarity; in more ways than one. "I just didn't feel comfortable there anymore," the creative designer tells us. Here, in this location, where until October 2009 a daily newspaper had its headquarters, she is surrounded by small, proprietor-run shops and amusement arcades, and passersby can look on as Germany's best-known hatmaker's singular creations take shape.

I'm much happier now that I'm not surrounded by the same chain stores anymore.

"This street has something of the big city lights about it," the hatter exclaims enthusiastically. With her alabaster skin, red lips, dark eyes, and brunette tresses, she resembles an upbeat and grown-up version of Snow White. Her family moved from Brighton to Berlin when she was six years old, and she has lived in the German capital since 1972. Nowadays, Berlin is very cosmopolitan and open but, even so, extravagant hats were not always popular here. "For a long time, hats were considered old-fashioned. In the seventies, people wanted to free themselves from hats. They were considered boring and "old-hat," associated with rules and conformity." As a child in the United Kingdom, Fiona had learned to view hats very differently. In England, if the Queen wore a new hat, it was front-page news. Hats are given more importance there than possibly elsewhere. "But," she says, " it's important that a hat never seems like a foreign object."

With my creations, I want to set off the individual beneath the hat. I certainly never want to disguise them or turn them into a sculpture.

Maybe it’s a stubborn streak – or the pioneering spirit that gleams in her eyes when she talks to us – that made her decide to learn this trade despite the waning demand. She found herself an apprenticeship with a time-honored family-run millinery in Berlin Kreuzberg. "I wanted to place hats in a positive light again," she tells us. In the little spare time she had while learning her trade, she started creating experimental headgear. Starting out with a small basement atelier, this led first to a shop in Berlin-Mitte in 1999, then via several other premises, to the current establishment in Potsdamer Strasse. In time, her clientele began to grow and – in addition to couturiers, actors, and designers – more and more international stars started taking notice. On her world tour, Christina Aguilera wore headgear created by Fiona Bennett. Roger Cicero, Ben Becker, and even Brad Pitt, all wear hats created by Fiona Bennett.

In my work, I'm always focused on nuances, often with a little twinkle, a dash of humor.

Fiona Bennett chooses and enunciates her words carefully. Almost as if she were practicing for the day when sound suddenly ceases to exist and we'd have to read her lips. However, the mere thought that events in her life should suddenly become so quiet is hardly conceivable. Looking at this confident woman today in her snow-white shop with her stylishly coiffed hair topped by a perfectly fitting hat and with her sparkling smile that doesn't falter even for the 50th photograph, you don’t begin to guess how busy her life is behind the scenes. However, to mark her 25th anniversary of plying the milliner’s trade, Fiona Bennett published a book in German entitled "Vom Locken der Federn" (The Curling of Feathers) that features a number of anecdotes about her turbulent life. Stories about fashion shows held in a converted tunnel of horrors, her life as a mother, and her love for Berlin. Overall, a short, poetic adventure story that plays in the fashion world.

Away from the pages in her book, she hardly swerves from her well-rounded, topical statements. But when she shows us a hat that is decorated with a handmade bird, she adds with a shrug: "I guess I have a thing for falling birds," and you start to wonder whether this woman may be a performance artist disguised as a milliner after all. She smiles. "I like being busy and combining a variety of things. I merely use my handicraft as a vehicle for my art." But before we can follow up on this oblique comment, a group of curious women invade the shop and command Fiona Bennett's attention with their questions. Throwing us a last exquisite smile over her shoulder, she excuses herself from the interview.

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