Fashion and Beauty

When the hat maker met Anna Wintour

CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau - The Philippine Star

Albertus Swanepoel says the feared ‘Vogue’ editor is nice in person but difficult to approach. ‘She is the most powerful person in fashion in the world, so everyone seems to keep their distance. She is brutally honest.’


When New York-based hat designer Albertus Swanepoel (pronounced “swan-eh-pool”) met Vogue editor Anna Wintour, it wasn’t exactly a Devil Wears Prada moment, but it came close.

“I met Ms. Wintour the first time when she was a judge on the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund,” says Swanepoel, who became first runner-up in the prestigious competition. “She has subsequently invited me to her house several times and other Vogue parties.”

The hat maker says the feared editrix is nice in person but difficult to approach. “She is the most powerful person in fashion in the world, so everyone seems to keep their distance. She is brutally honest. She can make or break a career. She is very ‘to the point’ and, of course, there are many stories or myths about her behavior.”

While the general mood of Devil Wears Prada hewed close to the truth, Wintour has been more of an angel than devil in terms of furthering Swanepoel’s career. She was the one responsible for getting him a collaboration with Target, and Vogue ran a double-page ad featuring Swanepoel and two models as part of the advertising campaign, which also appeared in other publications.

“She has been incredibly helpful to me in the sense of giving me continued exposure in her magazine,” Swanepoel says. “Her fashion editors have told me that she would always mention my name in meetings when hats come up.”

Grateful, he found out who her favorite florist was in New York (Belle Fleur) and sent her flowers, for which Wintour thanked him in a handwritten note that he has subsequently framed.

“I hope to believe that she likes my work, as she is still featuring it! In another handwritten note I received from her, she told me that she admired me, which is extremely flattering to me.”

However admiring Wintour is of his work, the prospect of designing a hat for Anna makes Albertus very nervous. “I was asked once to make her a hat for her summer holiday, but never saw a pic of her wearing it!” he admits.


So how cool is it that Anna Wintour’s top-of-mind hat designer has collaborated with Bench on a 14-piece holiday collection?

Hats that would normally cost $300 in New York — because each piece is painstakingly handmade by Swanepoel and his sister — will cost you around $35 at most at Bench. Now, that’s the kind of designer collaboration that gets me extremely excited.

“In the past we’ve done collaborations with Filipino designers based abroad who are doing well, so it’s about time we did something with international craftsmen who are good at what they do,” says Bench founder Ben Chan. “Luckily he said yes, and it’s exciting because this is the first time a Filipino brand is doing something with an international designer.”

Chan says that Bench already sells a lot of baseball caps — to both guys and girls — so releasing a line of designer hats was a natural progression, even if Filipinos aren’t notorious for being hat wearers.

“We have to do something that’s risky in a way,” he says. “It’s more of an honor for us for a well-known international designer to agree to collaborate with us.”



While Chan confesses to donning a baseball cap on occasion, Swanepoel reveals that he himself doesn’t like to wear hats. “I feel like I don’t have to be Exhibit A of what I’m doing, and to be honest, me and my sister make everything by hand, so I’m really working hard in the day, I’m running around, and I don’t feel right wearing some chic little hat while I’m sweating on the street.”

He discloses that he did bring one straw sunhat that he plans to wear in Boracay, where he will get some R&R for three nights after launching Albertus Swanepoel x Bench in Manila. But first, he has to do a round of press interviews, display the new wares as well as his past couture hats in an exhibit, and give a creative talk.

“Part of my philosophy is I want to make hats that feel very personal; I don’t like hats that are precious or overwhelming,” he says. “My whole aesthetic is I sometimes even distress hats that I make, or distress the ribbon so it looks like you’ve had the hat for a long time. My philosophy is a hat is like perfume — it’s so personal it has to blend with you.”

When designing, he keeps in mind the nostalgic aspect of hats from the ’30s and ’40s, when most men and women actually wore hats. “I do feel that a hat has to look almost recognizable, unless you’re daring and wear Philip Treacy or something outrageous.”

While Ben Chan gave him free rein, he did want Swanepoel to design hats bearing Swanepoel signatures such as tribal fabrics from South Africa, from whence the designer hails. “So for Bench, I looked at a lot of traditional Filipino fabrics — there’s a cap with fabric and straw — and also because Bench is younger and sportier, I tried to make a few styles that are more sporty, for young guys or girls in college to wear.”

There are camouflage beanies and caps in the collection that are right in step with today’s military trend. “Personally I love camouflage — for me it’s a classic print — and seersucker, which is a very summery fabric. I did little evening caps for girls in brocade, in very rich berries and blue and gold, like a baseball cap with very shiny fabric. It’s great for girl when she goes out at night.”

I have my eye on the black felt baseball cap with appliqués, but the colorful “handwoven” caps and camo beanies are also adorable. Now I’m thinking of buying all the styles I like and giving them as Christmas presents to my loved ones, especially the balikbayans who live in the States.

For first-time hat buyers, Swanepoel advises buying a simple style that you like (if you have a hard time choosing, like me, he recommends the fedora: not only is it a classic shape, it’s what Swanepoel made his name in), and then bringing it home and trying it out in front of the mirror. “And then go to the supermarket, or go before your event to the chicest shopping street. And when you really like wearing it you can get more adventurous, or try hats with colors.”

The great thing about such designer collaborations is that haute couture becomes democratic, and since it’s Bench, you know it will be smart and stylish yet affordable: “It’s not a luxury item, just something great a girl or guy can buy to add to their wardrobe, and it’s not such an investment,” Swanepoel says, adding that “Mr. Ben Chan is one of the most kind and charming businessmen I’ve met in my life. I find him to be generous, down-to-earth, and giving. He has a great vision and I am so grateful and lucky to be asked to work with him.”

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The Albertus Swanepoel x Bench holiday hat collection is available at Bench stores.

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Follow me on Facebook (Therese Jamora-Garceau), Twitter @tjgarceau and Instagram @tj108_drummergirl.












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