I first encountered Lisa Shaub years ago at her original store on Mulberry Street, and I bought a winter hat that I loved. Some years later, having lost it at a party, I bought a similar one from her booth at the Grand Central Holiday Market, as a replacement. I looked her up again recently to buy yet another similar hat as a Christmas gift, and visited her store in her current location on the lower east side to pick it up. While there, she showed me that one of her hats was in the December 2017 Vogue magazine (!) and kindly agreed to do an interview with me to talk about her work. We met up recently at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in SoHo (a very good place to have a meeting…pleasant and quiet environment, coffee available) and here’s what she had to say.
Lisa Shaub and a custom-made leopard spot sinamay fascinator
Date: January 11, 2018
Occupation: Milliner, for 30 years
Hometown: Philadelphia suburbs, four years in Europe in my elementary age which shaped my outlook, with travel and exposure to design
Current town: New York City—the East Village
The store window view at Lisa Shaub Fine Millinery, Orchard Street, NYC
What is the definition of millinery? Is it anyone who makes or sells women’s hats, or does it refer to someone with a greater expertise in the matter?
It’s technical, there’s a lot of foundation: it’s like being an architect. Structuring things: how to construct, to make it look and feel good. There’s a lot to learn. Ann Albezio, my teacher at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in the 1980s, said you could only consider yourself a milliner after seven years.
And do you also consider yourself a hatter? Do you ever design for men?
Yes, of course! I make hats for men, and I’ve had a children’s line, too.
How did you get started in this field?
I always was a sew-er…I always made stuff. When I came to New York I found fashion design challenging, but millinery can be a one-person operation. At FIT I began learning, working in a sample room with extra fabrics. I started making elastic hats, and they sold! So I did the millinery program.
I imagine it is a bit difficult to make a living from women’s hats when most women don’t wear them regularly, at least here in the US. What have been the trends in hat sales and hat popularity over time?
When I was studying in the 1980s, women were wearing hats. In the 1960s and 1970s hats stopped, it was all about the hair, but in the 1980s fashion hearkened back to the 1940s, and a bit of a hat renaissance followed.
Now the racing business is big for hats…the Kentucky Derby is huge. I sold a hat to the woman whose horse won last year (Maryellen Bonomo—the horse was Always Dreaming). She came into the store the week before, and I was busy, taking orders. People get invited at the last minute, it happens, so I’m doing a million things, and she came in on a Sunday telling me that her horse was in the race! She came back for a fitting. The horse was in the Post as favored to win. So Derby week, I’m slammed, I’m working until the last possible second. On the day of the race, people are coming into my store for on the spot hats and fascinators for Kentucky Derby parties, such as the one at Eleven Madison Park. They are texting me pictures of their outfits to match, and sending over messengers to pick up their hats. I wasn’t thinking about the race, or about Always Dreaming winning, but my mother watched it. She called me screaming, “Your horse won!” I turned on the television and there was Maryellen Bonomo giving an interview on TV wearing my hat! I could never have predicted that!
I know in England that it is still expected that women wear hats to weddings, whereas here we tend not to except for things like the Kentucky Derby and other special events. Do you see that changing over time? Is the upcoming royal wedding going to influence the hat market here?
I do see things changing, I’ve had a hat store since 1998. Back then racing wasn’t a big business, but over the last six years the racing business has grown. Not just the Kentucky Derby, the races at Belmont, the Preakness, and parties, like the Central Park Conservancy luncheon, the Eleven Madison Derby party create a fashion precedent. It is now the fabulous thing to not only wear a hat or a fascinator, but to have the glamorous experience of having it custom made to match your outfit. That is something I do all the time for many customers that I have never met and only work with through pictures. These days ladies want to look put together, and to wear an elegant fascinator to a wedding or special event.
The royals are phenomenal for business! Princess Di…she was far away, she was like Elizabeth Taylor, glamorous. But Princess Kate…she’s accessible, she looks good. Her stylist is great! She never has an overwhelming look, she always looks elegant and like her own self, comfortable and gorgeous.
That’s her job.
She’s good at it! And it’s a hard job. The British royals wear $3,000 hats. They’re like Armani suits, they’re not for every buyer.
We’re thrilled there’s going to be another royal wedding. All over the millinery industry…Americans do look to Europe for fashion.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?
From my customers, from working. The more I work, the more ideas I have. I’m now starting the Derby designing, it’s like running, getting back into shape. By April, ideas just start to pop out of my head! I work with my customers, it’s like a living sculpture and it can be very collaborative sometimes.
And in New York, fashion rubs off on you. New Yorkers have a certain chic.
Clare Foy, star of “The Crown”, models a custom pillbox by Lisa Shaub Fine Millinery In the December 2017 issue of Vogue
Who are some other milliners that you recommend?
I’m a founding member and board member of the Milliners Guild. We work toward promoting handmade hats, and have been doing that for ten years. Some milliners I like include our guild president Ellen Christine, my colleague, the talented Linda Ashton, Jill Courtemanche in LA, Cassie MacGregor in Texas. Linda Pagan, the owner of the Hat Shop NYC, is a close friend. She has carried my work in her shop for years and I think she does a fantastic job.
What is unique or special about your work and your hats?
I think the service aspects…I work very consciously with what my customer needs and wants. I’d say my style is feminine but a little edgy. A little off-kilter, but still elegant. I always have done things my own way.
Do you do custom hats for people looking for something particular or unique?
Yes, it really depends. People come in and ask for custom work, and I also do classes.
What I create for my clients depends largely on what they are looking for. Are they going to the Derby with clients and have to look appropriate, yet not too much? Or are they hoping to get in the newspapers, such as one of my clients who is a Louisville native and wants to push the envelope? People wear hats for all different reasons and I work closely with my customer to find out what is going to work for her.
Do you have many repeat or regular customers?
Yes, a lot of them. All over the world. I have some customers I’ve never met, I just ship hats to them. I have one customer who loves her hat and keeps losing it, so I make her the same hat every year and ship it to England.
So that means there are a lot of those hats out in the world! I wonder if anyone finds them and wears them? It reminds me of BookCrossing.
I’m not familiar with that.
It’s the idea that you take your used books and “release them into the wild,” like leaving them at airports or somewhere for someone else to find and enjoy.
I love that! Yes, maybe it’s like that with the hats! Somewhere out there is a yellow taxi with a load of my hats in the back.
Who are your favorite fashion designers of the past or the present?
I love Norma Kamali, she’s an idol. And Steven Jones, a milliner. Gabriella Ligenza—I love her work. I have been following the English milliners, they have such awesome technique!
What do you see in the future for millinery?
A lot of talented people are pushing it forward. Right now we are having a Gorin Brothers moment, they’re selling cheap $50 hats. They’re very accessible. Everywhere you look you see the twenty-something girl with long hair, and a wide brimmed felt fedora. Going to Berlin now, it looks like Williamsburg, they’re all over the place. Fashion keeps moving. It’s hard to predict with hats, because what we are doing depends on what clothing people are wearing and what people are doing with their hair. In the 1980s with short hair, hats really worked. With long hair, it is a bit harder, that’s when people might wear a fascinator. Hair styles and fashion come first, hats are an accessory to those other decisions. Jackie O’s pillbox hats worked with her boxy suits. But I’m always having a fun time. Worrying about trends doesn’t sell for me.
Is there a book about fashion that everyone should read?
D.V. by Diana Vreeland. It’s not PC but it’s interesting. And Chanel biographies! And Shocking: The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. If you want to learn about fashion, it is best to read about the lives of the people doing fashion, including their political situations. Fashion can be about finding solutions, it can be innovative. If you see gowns from the 1930s you might not appreciate them, but if you see them in relation to the movies, and literature of the time, to their context, it makes much more sense.
How about a work of fiction?
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. MaddAdam and that series by Margaret Atwood. And The Lord of the Rings. I read it each year. I love Tolkien. Interesting characters and conflicts.
What movie has the best fashion, with or without terrific hats?
Doctor Zhivago has fantastic hats! I don’t see a lot of movies these days, though. I have an eleven-year-old. So I see Disney pictures and movies about dogs going to work! No more Film Forum membership…
The women’s march last year, and this year for the anniversary: did you make any pink pussy hats?
I didn’t! That seemed like a d.i.y. thing to me. That was a thing that was already happening. I am political though, in my own way. I don’t use plastic bags in my store. I eat organic. I recycle. I do my own practice. I cook one meal from scratch every day. I’ve also started a health and wellness blog if you are interested. I am really enjoying writing about food, health, and lifestyle.
What is the best advice that you have been given?
Save your money. Buy real estate if you can.
More seriously, when you’re younger you don’t trust your instincts…but trust them! If your dream is reasonable, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Find a way to make it work. Honor your passion. I believe it is a gift from higher powers.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
Save money and buy real estate! New York in the 1980s!
But seriously, I worked hard, tried my best, married the right guy, and really, I have no regrets.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I forage for herbs in the woods, I pick plants and make teas. I’m learning about mushrooms but so far I’m too scared to harvest them!
Who would you most like to sell a hat to?
Princess Kate! She only wears English designers, though.
Maybe if she ever makes a stopover in New York.
I also want to give a hat to Orianthi. She is a guitar virtuoso. She’s been an inspiration to my daughter, who is also a singer and musician. Orianthi has made YouTube videos with guitar tutorials, which I think is very generous. I am going to send her a hat to say thank you. She plays a blue guitar, and my daughter just got the same one, a Paul Reed Smith, lapis blue.
A blue guitar? That sounds beautiful. And there’s a poem about a blue guitar. One of the modernists…I can’t remember the details now but I will send it to you.
English or American?
I’m not sure.
Probably American…English poets don’t write so much about music.
I think you’re right. I’ll look it up. [I did and she was. “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” by Wallace Stevens, American.]
What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?
People who run shops are very superstitious. Myself included.
I sage the store if someone has a fight. If it’s an unpleasant atmosphere, I need to create better energy. I like for people to feel comfortable in my hat store.
Last but not least, is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes, my blog! Please subscribe, or follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest. I am active with social media and always post picture of current hat work, or the food stories I will be presenting for L.S. Livewell that week.
I am working on a health-related e-book for L.S. Livewell that should be finished end of January. I am also spending this year compiling a book about my career in hats with all of the crazy stories about running a small business in NYC. There is a hat newsletter that gives you my latest millinery adventures. Thanks for speaking with me!
ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
* Images courtesy of Lisa Shaub;
* Photo of Clare Foy – Vogue, December 2017.
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Victor Calise, NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
* Yvonne Chu, Kimera Design
*Claudia Connor, International Institute of Connecticut
* Sarah Cox, Write A House
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Wendy Dutwin, Limelight Media
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Martha Albertson Fineman, law professor
* Bob Freeman, Committee on Open Government
* Carrie Goldberg, internet privacy and sexual consent attorney
* Dr. Ramis Gheith, pain management physician
* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Bill Harley, children’s entertainer and storyteller
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
* Michelle Jenab, anti-racism activist
* Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Alexandra Kennedy, Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
* Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker
* Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Lorin Morgan-Richards, author
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Craig Pomranz, cabaret singer, children’s book author
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Bill Sanderson, author, reporter, and editor
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Marjorie Silver, law professor
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Charlotte Smith, blogger, At Charlotte’s House
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Juliet Sorensen, law professor
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Pauline Turley, Irish Arts Center
* Vickie Volpano, Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Krissa Watry, Dynepic & iOKids
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor