Chloe Mitchell is 21 years old, and she is a milliner - a hat maker. She is also the founder of Drop of a Hat, a hat-making company that specialises in handmade bespoke hats.
After graduating from High School at Rosslyn Academy, Chloe knew she did not want to proceed to university, “I never was the academic type,” she notes with a smile.
But she wasn’t sure either of what she wanted to do with her life at the time. Her mother had however noticed in her the creative knack for fashion design, going by her design work at school. Between 2012 and 2013, Chloe, then 17, took Advanced Placement Art Work, a rigourous college-level course that provides an opportunity for high schoolers interested in art to gain college level skills in art.
As she went about researching on what she wanted to do, she found out that a grandaunt and great grandaunt had been milliners.
“It was so interesting, there were even pictures of one of the shops they had in Vevey (Switzerland) and pictures of my great grandaunt in her shop as well,” Chloe says.
Seeing her intrigue, her mother encouraged her to go to London, in the UK, to study millinery. This she did between September and December 2013, and then returned to the country. By then, she was in love with it, and knew this is what she wanted to do.
Chloe was under the tutorage of Rose Cory, one of the UK’s top milliners, and milliner to the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. She was also trained by Louise Pocock, in Cotswolds, UK, a milliner with a younger and modern style, rich in textile and colour techniques.
In October 2014, Chloe launched her business, Drop of a Hat, which is based in her parents’ home in Limuru – she was determined to make the finest hats Kenyans had ever seen. It hasn’t been as easy as she thought though. To begin with, not that many people in Kenya see hats as fashion accessories, and many do not see why one of her hats cost between Sh3,000 and Sh24,000.
“The hugest challenge I have had is educating potential clients on the difference between Chinese-made factory pieces, and my hand-made Kenyan pieces.”
She points out that mass produced products tend to be cheaper, but the quality and workmanship tends to be inferior as well.
Chloe uses imported, as well as local fabrics to produce her hats. Some of the fabrics she uses include rabbit fur felt, her favourite, Kikoi, beads, bronze, even recycled plastic bags and bottles, CDs, straw, sinamay and feathers.
The feathers she uses she collects herself around her neighbourhood when certain birds shed their feathers seasonally. She describes her style as vintage; more 1920’s style with a modern fun and quirky twist.
It takes her between four days to three months to produce a one-of-a kind piece. There is no single hat or headpiece that she produces that looks like the other. “As long as I have made your hat, you can be sure that nobody else will have a similar design.”
SHOWCASED AT VARIOUS FASHION EVENTS
Chloe’s designs have been showcased at various fashion events, such as the Kenya Fashion High Tea and The Samantha’s Bridal Wedding Fair.
A concern for her is potential copy cats of her designs, and their mass production, which will lead to devaluing of the craft, besides threatening her young business. Chloe gives Maasai Market as an example of where you will find copycats who jeopardise the growth of talented crafters.
“Go to Maasai Market today – you will see one woman creating something, and come the next week, everyone will be creating the same thing.”
She points out that at fashion events, she has overheard designers and models blatantly admit to their intention of copying her workmanship.
Millinery has mostly been a boutique craft. It is not mass produced or industrial, and this is how Chloe intends to keep her business. Lean, and bespoke. As her business has expanded, she has employed two seamstresses, whom she trained. She also works with a crafter in Gachie, Kiambu County, who creates the hat boxes she uses to store her hats.
How long was your training in millinery?
It took four months, but it is not over, as I still learn every day.
What is the average duration of a millinery course?
You cannot put a time limit on training, it varies for everyone. There is so much to learn - I know people who have been taking classes for 17 years. It depends on how much you want to learn, and whether you are doing it as a hobby or for business.
What is the average cost of millinery school?
It’s not possible to put an average cost on studying this skill, since it depends on so many factors; flights, commuting, accommodation, meals, materials, the teacher, technique and style. Some courses last half-a-day while others are full day. There is also private tutoring as well as a classroom set up. A single course can range between 11,300 to 24,600 Shillings (€ 99 to €215) or even higher per course.
What is an average work day like for you?
A typical day usually starts at 8am, when I work on new creations until lunch time. I take a 30 minutes lunch break and then work until 6pm, finishing up older projects. During upcoming social events where my designs are accessories for some of the event’s attendees, I work till 7.30 pm or even 10pm, depending on the work load.
What is the average cost estimate to kick-start a business in millinery?
Again it is not possible to put a number on it because there are so many aspects to take into consideration such as the individual’s style, choice of fabric, source of fabric and technique - it will be different for each person. A rough estimate is maybe Sh1.4 to 2M, though this could be even higher for others.
How did you do your market research?
When I launched my business, I had one main ‘Out of Africa’ collection, which incorporated African textiles, beadwork and flowers. From there, I created different hat styles to see what would be popular with what age group. I also attended various fairs in Nairobi, such as the Spring Valley Christmas Bazaar, Christmas Fair at Ngong Racecourse and Bizarre Bazaar, to find out what was going to interest potential clientele. I have attended every craft fair there is over the last two years, to know where to find my target clientele.
Who are your most ardent customers?
It is a mix of Kenyans who are fashion conscious and love hats to accessorise their style, and the expat community.
How much do you spend on advertising your product - do you have an advertising strategy?
So far it has been journalists calling me up to seek interviews for newspapers and TV stations. This has been one of the ways I have managed to get the word out. The biggest one however has been word of mouth through friends and family.
How did you source the capital to kick start your business?
I am not at liberty to divulge this, but I can say that I sourced it locally. I would not have been able to kick this off without the support I received. Becoming a milliner is not cheap because materials are quite costly.
How often do you produce a new collection?
I try to make one collection every four months. I don’t go by the conventional spring, summer, autumn and winter collection as most fashion designers. I figure out what I am keen on at a given time, for example flowers, and then do a flower collection.
What collection do you have now?
I worked on and released an anti-poaching collection in November last year, and that sold out very fast. I thought that maybe I could help raise awareness about the plight of elephants in Kenya through fashion. I don’t think it has been done in that respect. I have built on that since November, my focus on a constant collections raising awareness on illegal poaching of elephants. Part of the proceeds from the sale of this collection goes to David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
How do you determine your pricing?
It all has to do with the materials I use on the collection; do I need to ship them in from abroad for instance? I don’t overprice and I don’t do a huge mark up because I am trying to draw people to hats. In the UK, you could spend Sh40,000 on a hat that will sell for Sh14,000. It is more expensive to buy a hat in the UK than it is if you bought from my collection. I have to say though, that my quality is as high as that you would find in the UK, but much more affordable.
What kind of profit margins do you make, and are there favourable times of the year for this business?
I am yet to break even, but things are getting better. When we have events coming up, like the Kenya Derby, it means I have more clients in one week over another.
What are your expansion plans in the coming years?
I would like to keep my business small, even though I would like to employ a few more people. I have no intention of going overboard and mass produce. I want to keep my business small and bespoke, making unique individual pieces for my clients. I also want to start exporting my hats to Europe.
Did you get any mileage having an international celebrity such as Lupita Nyong’o wearing one of your hats in Vogue and Hello! Magazines?
It was amazing. There was quite some chatter online, and people are beginning to find out that I was the one who made the hat Lupita wore. I have not had so many sales however, because it wasn’t mentioned that the hat was from Drop of a Hat.
It is a funny story actually; we made the hat, but we didn’t know her head size or any other specifics. It was a complete guess. We found out which hotel Lupita was staying at when she visited Nairobi last year, and we left the hat at the hotel reception, hoping the staff would give it to her, but they weren’t allowed to. Lupita’s mum found out about it, and picked it. I had left the hat with a letter explaining who I am and what I do and the idea behind the creation of the hat. I explained that it was an ‘anti-poaching’ hat, and therefore befitting Lupita, since she is a wildlife ambassador. I didn’t think she would actually wear it, but then I found her Instagram account and there she was, wearing it. A few days later, there was a screen shot from the Vogue website with her in it, and also Hello magazine.
To see this hat, visit HERE.
For one who wants to become a milliner and cannot afford to travel abroad to get training, what options are there for them?
Unfortunately, the only destinations that I know of that offer training for what I do are the UK, Australia and the US. People have approached me to give them lessons, but my concern is that I have no guarantee that I won’t be copied, so no, I am not training for now. I research for months to build a single style. For ages there have been the milliner’s secrets. My second tutor, Louise Pocock, told me that when she was learning her craft, her tutor would only give her very basic stitch work, and would not allow her to see what she was doing.
You were planning to create hats with SPF fabric (Sun protective clothing whose fabric has levels of ultraviolet protection). Have you made a collection yet?
We are still working on it, and it is a goal we intend to achieve. Melanoma, (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) is very common around here, and it is in my family history. It is good to wear hats for fashion, but also wear them to protect yourself from the sun’s rays. From the sun you can get age spots, wrinkles and melanoma. Sun-proof lining would be very helpful.
What specific and unique skill sets should a milliner have?
Creativity is necessary. You need creativity to produce a unique hat – artists don’t copy. You also need to work out your own style, aim for quality, and also be able to stitch.