Crystal Birch's new A:Head collection take inspiration from classic Western styles
Crystal Birch's new A:Head collection take inspiration from classic Western styles
Image: Supplied

Preserving the rich tradition of millinery and infusing it with contemporary charm, Crystal Birch is giving Wonderland’s eccentric hatter a run for his money. The Cape Town brand’s pop-up store at 44 Stanley in Milpark, Johannesburg, opened with their latest A:Head collection.

Inspired by the untamed spirit of the Wild West, the trans-seasonal collection breathes life into forgotten hat blocks and classic Western styles, paying homage to the rugged charm of the era.

“Western styles represent bravery to me,” explains Birch, a sentiment reflected in the women who have supported and inspired her. Affectionately called “Bounty Babes” in the collection campaign, Birch asserts, “They’re not just models, they’re trailblazers in their own right.”

As a woman entrepreneur, finding support, encouragement engaging in meaningful conversations, this means a lot to her.

“This collection is called A:Head, because if you want to get ahead, you need to get a hat,” says Birch. As the only woman in the extremely small SA millinery industry this mantra is something she lives by.

Growing up in Tzaneen, Limpopo, and raised in a family that fostered artistic expression, Birch experienced a childhood rich in freedom and creativity. She believes her formative years spent outdoors laid the foundation for her innovative approach to life.

“Small-town children’s imaginations expand more because they’ve got less. My childhood free [and] outdoors really [let] me play in my imagination and create spaces that didn’t exist. And that’s why I’m probably as imaginative and creative as I am today,” she says.

After winning a handbag competition for SA Fashion Week, she attended a seminar where renowned SA and New York based milliner, Albertus Swanepoel was a speaker.

“I really admired him. He said that if you want to become a specialist, you need to decide early in your career,” Birch recalls.

Crystal Birch
Crystal Birch
Image: Supplied

Pursue passion

However, visiting Parisian Milliners, established in 1936 by the Faktor family, during her studies at the Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion cemented millinery in her mind. Birch eventually acquired Parisian Milliners from mentor and owner Harry Faktor and renamed it The Hat Factory. Though she studied fashion, she did not want to go into clothing. She became a stylist instead.

While living in London, Birch worked at Topshop, studied part time and bartended. A road trip in Ireland gave her a “light bulb moment” when her grandmother encouraged her to pursue her passion,

“She said, if you want to study hats, you’re in the right place, you better do that now,” Birch recalls.

During her time in London, Birch interned with renowned hat-makers Noel Stewart and Piers Atkinson, whose mentorship and guidance shaped her craft.

She returned to SA in 2010 and only started focusing solely on millinery in 2018 when she trained under Faktor.

“The [milliner] industry is very small and considered dated, [but it] gives us pioneering ground to play and push boundaries,” Birch says.

However, this unique position also presents significant challenges. Unlike trends in clothing or accessories that quickly catch on, hat making requires a shift in mindset and consumer behaviour.

“It’s because they’re not used to them, [hats are] an accessory they haven’t incorporated from a young age into their wardrobes or been exposed to,” she laments.

As one of three factories left in SA, Birch’s sentiments highlight the broader issue of preserving traditional craftsmanship in the face of globalisation and fast fashion. She emphasises the importance of safeguarding skills such as hat making, weaving, and beading to prevent their disappearance from African industries.

Crystal Birch hat collection
Crystal Birch hat collection
Image: Supplied

Manufacturing hub

“If we don’t preserve these skills, we’re putting a lot of people out of a job,” she says. 

The Hat Factory serves as a manufacturing hub for other local brands including Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi, Viviers, and BeachCult as well as the Crystal Birch label.

“They want to manufacture with us too because of our transparency and my expertise as a milliner, a friend and designer so that they have the best quality hat in their collections as well,” says Birch.

With a focus on bespoke service and impeccable craftsmanship, The Hat Factory team includes people who have worked in the industry for 50 years and are predominantly women. As owner for three years, Birch has spearheaded a rebranding effort to enhance the visibility and understanding of millinery as an art form.

“We have to educate a whole new generation to understand what a milliner is and why hats are special and how they are made,” Birch explains.

With a focus on sustainability and a dedication to preserving centuries-old craftsmanship, Birch hopes to redefine the hats in contemporary fashion. She factory sources materials from around the globe, often repurposing fabrics from closed-down factories.

“It’s not only the material that’s sustainable, it’s the whole process, the transparency, the people who made it and where everything comes from.”

This also includes fair wages, safe working conditions, and ethical sourcing practices.

The dramtic flair of a Crystal Birch hat
The dramtic flair of a Crystal Birch hat
Image: Supplied

The Melusine felt used in the A:Head collection was acquired from a factory that closed nearly 20 years ago with felts made in the 1970s-90s. The stock was about to be discarded, before it was purchased by The Hat Factory.

They use 100% wool felt and silk straw, and their ostrich feathers are sourced from the Karoo region where they aren’t industrially farmed and where every part of the ostrich is used, from the egg and meat to the skin and feathers.

While some may be deterred by the use of animal-derived materials, not all materials marketed as vegan are inherently sustainable. Instead of turning to plastic alternatives, the Crystal Birch brand and The Hat Factory prioritise natural and sustainable materials that not only hold their shape effectively but also allow for breathability and comfort when worn.

They’re committed to educating consumers on the value of their materials; they source in small batches and consistently stress the importance of investing in local brands and designers. Birch also believes in the importance of conscious consumption, encouraging consumers to consider the story behind their purchases and the transparency of the production process.

What sets her brand apart are its Cansa approval and fashion-focused designs created with traditional millinery in mind. A love of storytelling and the people she surrounds herself with are a well of inspiration.

The Crystal Birch pop-up store at 44 Stanley is open for three months with plans for an extension to six months.

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