Meeting Fiona was pure delight. Her studio is situated in a gorgeous leafy street in Orange, NSW. You walk up the garden pathway to her studio and you are greeted with sounds of classical music. Inside the light-filled studio there are antique hat boxes stacked high, her Grandmother's sewing machine, inspiration adorning the walls and many devine hat-creations fill the space. I truly felt like I had stepped into another world.
Fiona is a Milliner, an art that isn't a common one these days. Hats once held such a high degree of symbolic meaning, they determined a person's status and class. Nowadays they have a different purpose, sun protection being one but they do still excite those wanting a show-stopping creation for race day, a wedding or a particular event.
Fiona grew up on a farm near Forbes, NSW, she is the youngest of five children. She knew early on that her path was going to be a creative one. Fiona's mother used to sew and taught her daughter at around age ten.
"I really liked it," Fiona remembers. "I wasn't a really girly-girl, I used to dress the dog, rather than the dolls."
During school holidays she would go to town with her Mum to choose fabrics and patterns. "One year I made shorts for everyone." Fiona remembers. If she wasn't sewing you could find her by the dam making clay pots or in the shed with her Dad using her hands to make things.
She studied Art and Textiles through High School. For the HSC she campaigned to have Textiles as a subject.
"I needed seven mates to join the class to do Textiles for the HSC. I did it, I got the class running!" Fiona recalls.
Fiona's parents always encouraged her to follow her dreams. And to follow this dream it did mean leaving the country to go to Sydney.
"Dad drove me down and back to Sydney in a day to go to a two hour information lecture," Fiona recalls. On completing her HSC she studied at the Whitehouse Institute, Design and Illustration.
"It was an intense and demanding course. The lecturers were industry based," she said. Every 8-10 weeks the class would embark on learning a new skill or range of design, be that swimwear, evening or corporate wear. It would involve doing concept sketches, look and feel boards, as well as detailed drawings and fabric selections. It was all about selling the whole concept.
"We would make it, then fully style on models for a catwalk presentation," she recalls. The clothes would then be critiqued and marked including hair styles, make up and accessories.
It was during the second year of studies that Fiona experienced Millinery. It was love, the hands-on trade reminded her of sculpting. It was a much more individual craft, than the mass-produced nature of clothing. Her teacher, Neil Grigg, a society Milliner, became her inspiration.
"Making hats came from the hands, rather than machines," Fiona explains. Something she preferred to be making. On finishing her studies she joined Neil Grigg and worked with him for a few years to advance her skills.
During the late 1990's Fiona "side-stepped" into jewellery, working with Dinosaur Designs.
"My one regret was having to leave there. It was a phenomenal place to work, a great dynamic," Fiona recalls. The workplace was really child friendly and Fiona was able to bring her new baby to work with her as Louise Olsen also had a baby and they shared a Nanny, to help the creative Mother's continue to work in a field they love.
It was when Fiona's husband, Max, decided on a career change that the couple and their 18 month old child moved to the country. The town they headed for was Orange. At the time there was no fashion industry other than the chain stores, no markets, and the internet access was limited to dial up and social media was non existent. But her mission was to start up her own Millinery in the country.
"How am I ever going to get this going? I hung my shingle on the door and hoped they would come," Fiona remembers.
And they did! With clients from all over Australia, word of mouth has been her best form of promotion. Fiona likes to work closely with her customers to get the best results.
"After determining what style the customer is after, I choose the fabric, straw or whatever it might be and start working it, to see where it wants to go," she explains.
Customers love working with her and they tend to come back for multiple hats over the years.
"Sometimes dresses just turn up in the mail with a note asking for a hat to match!" Fiona says.
Being able to work with customers from afar is very challenging for such a hands-on craft but it is something Fiona has mastered. The process starts with designs sent to clients with example images and they talk colours and fabrics.
"It's important to both be on the same page," she says. This level of service has served Fiona well and finding the right customers has taken time to achieve. The process behind creating a personal piece, such as a hat is one that should be appreciated. Not only does the hat need to fit perfectly but the care and time it must take to hand dye straw or silk to perfectly match an outfit as well as the handmade flowers and details needed to complete the piece.
"Understanding the process, the time and the journey in making a piece is important. Others may look at the piece and complain about the price. They're not your customer," Fiona advises.
This amazing creative is very busy at the moment with Autumn racing season as well as "showing her wares" at various markets. You can find her at the Journey Person Pop Up in Orange at the Cornerstone Gallery this weekend and on Sunday she will be at Millthorpe Markets. Her hats can also be found at the following stores; Tomolly, Saddler and Co (seasonal), Miss Mary Mac and Harry & Me, Daylesford VIC. If you would like to contact her for a custom hat, she would love to hear from you.