Hats off

Weekend Glitz | Kelis Wong 18 Nov 2016

For the past months Harvey Santos has been a man on a mission. The London- based Filipino milliner was tasked to create a riotous parade of gravity-defying head gears for the female racegoers on Sa Sa Ladies' Purse Day.

With high style stakes in mind, the social event, which took place earlier this month, was a man's turn to turn heads at the most glamorous time of the local horse racing season.

Santos brought 50 hats under his eponymous label to the event, including the ones from his latest Fizzy Pop collection - an array of spring and summer hats that use pearls, pom poms and polka dots to capture the sensation of bubbles popping on the tongue when drinking fizzy drinks.

"The annual event is a major occasion where you are required a hat if you are going to the racecourse that day," Santos said. "It's great to see Hong Kong having a hat culture and how it is reaching to people because hat wearing is something really, really fun."

But Santos hasn't always been a man on such a mission. He was a classically trained ballet dancer, having studied at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts under a dance scholarship he won in 1997.

After graduation, Santos joined the Hong Kong Ballet and danced in all its major productions for six seasons. He took up costume design in his free time - an interest which turned into a viable alternative career path when he felt he was too old to continue dancing on stage.

"I would help in the troupe's costume department, sewing sequins and attaching crystals. The head of wardrobe, Virginia Chu, bought me my first sewing machine. I was encouraged to be a costume designer."

When Santos bid farewell to his dancing career in his 30s, he taught himself prop and costume making through extensive reading, and later devoted all of his time for projects commissioned for stage and television productions.

But upon moving to London in 2008, he hit a bottleneck for his second career.

"When I got there, I thought it would be easy for me to find a job because London has lots of theaters," he said. "That didn't happen because I didn't have credentials."

A chance encounter steered the dispirited designer in a new course.

"It was Halloween and I was buying materials for my costumes. I saw a trade publication, The Hat Magazine, at the shop and I bought it. It opened up a whole different world for me," he said.

"For theater, sometimes, you do things that would look great from afar. But when you see it up close, it could be pretty rough and gaudy. I didn't know how to make couture hats until I opened that magazine."

Santos jumped head-first into millinery after a five-day course with Rose Cory, milliner to the Queen Mother. With a little beginner's luck, the late starter has won prizes at Royal Ascot, and was named the Hat Designer of the Year by The Hat Magazine in 2013.

Since then, he has apprenticed with Noel Stewart, who has made headpieces for Kylie Minogue's Aphrodite World Tour, and worked on Stephen Jones' team producing headgear for Marc Jacobs and John Galliano.

Santos now works for the Royal Opera House. He is also a regular fixture at London and Paris Fashion Week, and sells pieces from his eponymous label at consignment shops in the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and Germany.

In recent years, the milliner has built a following of stylists and starlets, such as American songstress Lady Gaga, style director for Harper's Bazaar China Lucia Liu Lu, Chinese actress Zhao Wei and Taiwanese pop singer Hebe Tien Fu-chen.

His talents in creating beautifully idiosyncratic headpieces for performers came from the theater. But the milliner never forgets to include humbler made- to-order special occasion hats every time in his seasonal collections for ordinary men and women.

"Women are the biggest market for hats because of the races and formal events like wedding and christening. It excites me to make hats for women because I can let myself go crazy with the designs and shapes," he said.

"I do men's hats mainly because I want to wear them, and also to restrict myself a little and have a wider range."

Personally, he prefers hats, such as the busby, that can project theatricality. "I came from the theater so I am a little bit of a diva," he joked. "I like tall hats as they slightly change the shape of one's face and make one feel more important."

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