Albertus Swanepoel On Orphan Accessories

As you may have read, this season in the run up to fashion week we’re celebrating the artists of fashion. The fashion industry gets such a bad rep sometimes, thanks in part to lame press releases spouting rubbish like “this season, so and so designer is focusing on modernity, and a fresh strong woman." I mean – what designer wants to look backwards, focus on the past and channel a haggard, limp ass chick? Certain magazines (not mentioning any names) don’t help the cause either. “Get the celebrity look” – have you ever tried to put together the suggestions they throw on the page to emulate a Cameron Diaz look in a paparazzi shot of her getting a raw kale juice at Fred Segal? It misses the point. We feel sorry for the girls on the street who have taken the dictat literally – they sure as hell never make the style grade as putting a killer look together that works has to really come from the inside – a sartorial expression of who you are and how you see yourself. Consumers and followers of fashion are so obsessed with the latest must-have that by and large they miss the point of what they are buying into.

Anyway, rant over. Today’s artist is legendary South African-born but New York-based milliner Albertus Swanepoel. He has worked with a great roll call of fashion stars including Proenza Schoeler, Ohne Titel (one of MADE’s star alumni), and Carolina Herrera. One show season he clocked up 12 collaborations. This season he is with Herrera again, and MADE designers Timo Weiland and Cushnie et Ochs.

The delight about him is his humble, self-deprecating approach. He doesn’t follow the herd or jump on the bandwagon. The beloved designers du jour these days in the industry might be Celine and Balenciaga, but he is very much his own person – he reveres Christian Lacroix, John Galliano and legendary interior designer Tony Duquette (imagine if France’s King Louis VIII had chosen to be a Californian set designer). But even if Swanepoel’s heroes are larger than life visual maximalists, his work distills a witty theatricality into something infinitely wearable and contemporary. The piece that sums him for me up is a streamlined cowboy hat made of South African kaleidoscopic multi-coloured printed cotton – a nod to his native heritage combined with the American influence of his current American home. The piece’s name, "schwe schwe," is onomatopoeic – “because the fabric makes that sound when it moves.”

I mention last year’s Met exhibit where Muccia Prada had an imaginary conversation with Elsa Schiaparelli – who would be his partner in crime from the past? “Cecil Beaton or Cocteau. They can do no wrong in my eyes.” Another connection springs up – both Beaton and Cocteau’s work crossed into theatre, and Swanepoel’s main passion is opera. “It’s larger than life…the emotion and the passion. I respect performing artists for how they train for years and perform for one night.” He sees a parallel between their work and his – weeks spent refining and honing their oeuvre, and then there is the one moment for where it emerges out of its chrysalis, for all to see, with no going back. He thinks his working process is like giving birth, which harks back to orphans. For him, hats are “the orphans of the accessory world. Women spend time and money on clothes, shoes, bags – and then the last thing they consider (or often don’t) is a hat." Luckily for us, Swanepoel’s creations aren’t forlorn orphans. Time after time, tribes of poetic millinery emerge from his extraordinary mind, so keep an eye out during MADE for his collections with Timo Weiland and Cushnie et Ochs.

Photography by Amanda Hakan

IG: @maryeleanorfellowes
Twitter: @maryfellowes

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