King's the new queen of hats

Caroline Whelan meets Caithriona King who is making major waves on the national millinery scene

Watch out Philip Treacy. The master himself has seen some serious competition emerge in recent years and none more so than in fellow Galwegian Caithriona King. The Corofin native is designing hats and headpieces which are not just aesthetically beautiful but also structurally quite amazing.

And this immense talent is being recognised by a wider audience as Ms King was recently crowned Milliner of the Year at The Fashion Innovation Awards. Up against big names in the industry such as Jennifer Wrynne and Carol Kennelly, taking this honour was no mean feat. The affable milliner describes herself as being totally shellshocked when the winner’s name was announced at the awards ceremony.

Finalists were required to design six pieces for the event, three of which were shortlisted by judges to be modelled on the night. She feels her designs may have surprised people by their size, structure, and imaginative nature. “It was a great way of showing people this is what I can do, when I am given free rein. It is good in a way to move outside your comfort zone and make a collection of pieces which get people talking. It can be difficult enough to get your name out there and winning the award has given me a great platform going forward.”

Millinery is certainly big business nowadays. The popularity of ladies’ days on the racing circuit has exploded due to the extremely valuable prizes on offer and the style on show at race meetings across the country is simply phenomenal. Sometimes it seems every second person you meet is taking up millinery in some shape or form. However Caithriona King is highly trained in her field - and it shows. She studied art at the Waterford Institute of Technology specialising in sculpture and photography, and following on from that travelled to London to take up a place at the famed Wombourne School of Millinery.

A talent that could not go unnoticed

On returning to Ireland, like all good businesses, it all started at the kitchen table. The milliner began by customising headpieces for herself for weddings and by making hats for friends. And things have progressed gradually and indeed momentum continues to gather about her work, which is undoubtedly very special.

The 36-year-old who is married to the IFA county vice-chairman Stephan Canavan, juggles farming, house-keeping, and child-rearing duties with her thriving business, which operates from a custom built studio beside her home. Having worked with the Brothers of Charity for a number of years, an extended career break means millinery is now her full-time focus. And it has proved a smart move, she is busier than ever designing custom-made hats and headpieces for that special occasion.

It is clear the busy mum of four is revelling in pursuing her passion and the freedom of working from home. “I think I am more relaxed now I am concentrating on the millinery full-time. I was getting to a stage where it was becoming a little difficult to juggle it with a job. The children are still young - nine, four, six, and two, so it is a nice balance to be around home during their formative years as well. They get very involved in the millinery and would be running in from school bursting to see what I have made that day. It is lovely that they have an interest in what I am doing and can be part of it. They are also not shy about giving their opinions on different pieces!”

A newer aspect of her business has been the addition of a service whereby she shows women’s groups and hen parties how to make their own fascinator. She is very outgoing and sociable and her vocation can be quite solitary at times so meeting groups of women is something which she really enjoys. “The women love it too, they find it very relaxing and they have something to show for their work at the end of the day.”

‘Wearing a headpiece is always to celebrate a happy occasion’

Her eyes light up when I enquire what is it a headpiece or hat will do for a particular outfit. “There is no doubt that it will transform a look” she says. “All my materials can be dyed to match whatever colours are in the outfit. A headpiece will just bring the whole thing together. For example, for somebody attending a ladies’ day event at the races, the judges are always on the lookout for the whole package. For somebody going to a wedding or christening, a stunning piece will add that final touch. Another thing I notice sometimes is that the more people wear headpieces, they will see what they can do for an outfit and then over time become braver and more confident to experiment with different styles.”

‘Balancing’ a look when wearing a hat or headpiece is referred to a number of times. “If your dress or outfit is pretty tame or one plain colour, you can afford to go a little wackier with the headpiece - wearing something maybe a little bigger, which stands out. However if there is already a centre-piece to your outfit, such as, for example, the skirt the winner of the Galway Races best dressed lady wore last year, she built the rest of her look around the big wide skirt and you would have noticed her headpiece was a lot smaller and it just pulled the whole thing together.

Ah yes Galway. With the inclement spell of weather Ireland is experiencing of late, we are already dreaming, or at the very least hoping for sunny days and evenings at Ballybrit in July. Ladies’ day at Galway has now managed to transcend every other event in the country, in terms of publicity and prestige. And a win in Galway can transport a milliner’s career on to a whole different plain. Just ask Kerry woman Carol Kennelly who swooped the title with one of her own designs in 2008 and is now one of the country’s leading hat designers. Caithriona King has already had much success at race meetings with her hats being placed at various ladies’ day events around the country. However she says a win on her home turf, would be a dream come true. “It is the creme de la creme of the ladies’ day circuit.” And it is surely only a matter of time. Watch this space, this is one woman who is going places fast.

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