Some Minnesotans seem to get nervous, even a little sheepish, when they see Celina Kane’s booth set up at local art shows and the Mill City Farmers Market. Occasionally, onlookers will even let out a stifled giggle, as if to say “I could never pull that off.”
Admittedly, it takes a certain level of confidence to pick up one of Celina’s pieces and do the thing many people would only imagine doing: wear a couture hat made by hand.
“People walk by and will be like, ‘I love it. I wish I could wear hats,’” says the 28-year-old milliner, who was born and raised in Minneapolis and crafts women’s hats in her Northeast Minneapolis studio. “People today aren’t confident because they’re not used to seeing their face underneath a hat. It’s sort of like glasses: When you put on a new pair you’re like, ‘Wait, that’s not me.’ It takes a minute to adjust.”
In many ways, our culture’s relationship with hats has become transactional. In Minnesota, hats are synonymous with function: UV protection in the summer, warmth in the winter, and a tool for declaring allegiance to one’s favorite sports teams year round. Despite that, Celina hopes her creations will get Minnesotans to fall in love once more with an art form that dropped out of popular style nearly six decades ago.
Hats on repeat
The hats adorning the mannequin heads in Celina’s studio feature a range of designs and colors: hand-stitched constellations and rose-gold studs, deep purples and powder blues. Scattered throughout the studio among the hats are the items required to make them: baskets of ribbons, more than 50 spools of thread, and assorted wooden hat blocks. It’s here, surrounded by finished pieces and raw materials, that Celina transforms flat textiles into 3D works of art.
Celina launched her brand in 2015 after training with master couture milliner and now-mentor Anya Caliendo, whose work has graced the pages of Vogue and been worn by fashionistas such as Lady Gaga. Celina’s pieces are contemporary, refined, and original. Like a shield, they can furnish the wearer with an undeniable confidence. In short, put on a hat and you’ll become powerful.
“It’s a showstopper every time,” Celina says. “You can’t not see them. It’s not like shoes where maybe you don’t notice them. This is your face. It’s going to be noticed no matter what.”
Building a traditional hat typically starts with the crown. Celina begins by picking a material—anything from soft felted rabbit fur to toyo, a Japanese straw made out of rice paper and recycled plastic. Material selected, she places it over a wooden hat block and coaxes out all the wrinkles and creases. “It’s like throwing a pot on a wheel,” she says. “It’s this super textural and tactile feeling. Your hands are completely in it. You have to feel all of the bumps and really smooth it out. It’s the moment where you feel like you made something out of nothing.”
This step, called blocking, requires a confident but minimal touch. The milliner only gets a few chances to create the shape she wants before the material gets overworked and loses its sheen.
Once the hat base is set, Celina gives shape to the brim of the hat with a sturdy wire. Then she adds any additional accents she sees fit: leather feathers, beading or Mexican charms. Last, she’ll line the hat and sew in a sweat band to protect the piece from makeup and debris. Except for the occasional brim that requires the use of a sewing machine, Celina does everything by hand. She prefers it that way: The milliner focuses on artistry over functionality, and hand-stitching adds an extra level of control that lets her get the details and quality of the hat just right.
Where it all began
Celina’s obsession with hats began during her junior year in college at the University of Minnesota. At the time, she was working toward a triple major in political science, art history, and French. Then, for reasons Celina can’t quite pinpoint, she started watching YouTube videos and ordering books on how to make hats. It was like a song that got stuck in her head. She put her newfound skills to the test in a class with a milliner in Duluth, and in the process fell in love with making hats.
When she graduated in 2013, Celina went on a “grand European adventure.” The trip was mostly an excuse to celebrate finishing college, but also a time to practice her drawing and figure out what to do next—especially regarding her infatuation with headwear. In every city she visited, Celina would post up in an art museum with a sketchbook and let her pen fly.
It all came to a head in Budapest, at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the middle of day and the museum was empty. “I was surrounded by beautiful contemporary art and zoning out completely, just looking at Gordon Matta-Clark demolish a building,” says Celina, recalling her time watching a video by the artist. That’s when a thought hit her: “I was like, ‘This is what I do: I start my business making hats. There’s no other option.’”
A return to glory
It used to be that women and men didn’t dare step out of the house without a hat. By the 1960s, however, the trend was starting to fall out of favor. The increased accessibility of owning a car (and said vehicles’ cramped interiors) made wearing hats less convenient and less necessary. Innovative hairstyles from Vidal Sassoon revolutionized women’s hair to the point where it became a fashion statement in its own right, no accessories needed.
Yet thanks to the recent string of British royal weddings, people’s attitudes toward hats are changing again. The accessory seems to be going through somewhat of a reawakening in American culture, says Celina, who has not only seen a rise in hat appreciators, but hatmakers since the royal celebrations.
“People started to engage with hats and have a different conversation about them. Now people know what the word ‘fascinator’ is,” she says, referring to a decorative headpiece clipped into hair. “The other day someone on the street called out, ‘I like your fascinator.’ That would have never happened six years ago.”
Being a milliner today is as much about making hats as it is about educating potential customers. Since people aren’t used to sporting fancy headwear, Celina often teaches newcomers what to look for, such as quality materials and a smooth crown. Whether or not a piece deserves the label of “couture” is something else the artist often finds herself explaining—the designation refers to the use of the highest quality materials and a piece constructed completely by hand. In her collections, Celina has both couture and semi-couture work.
Mostly, educating people about millinery comes down to showing hesitant aficionados that despite their reservations, they, too, can pull off a hat and feel good wearing it. While the majority of Celina’s clients are middle-aged women from Minnesota, New York City, and Los Angeles, she’s getting younger clients who want to invest in their first hat. “Instead of buying a bunch of fast fashion and throwing it out, they’re saving their money and buying things they know will last and that are ethically made,” she says.
In response to this widening interest, Celina added a range of starter pieces to her collection, including velvet head wraps, turbans, and lightweight summer hats, all of which run from $50 to $200. Those pieces, in addition to her signature square-shaped Quadratto hat, are the bread and butter of her business. As for her more extravagant couture pieces, they don’t sell as quickly but do manage to grab people’s imagination, enamoring curious onlookers with their flair and theatrics. However, as long as Minnesotans continue to reach for hats to block out the sun and the snow, Celina believes there’s a good chance that one day they’ll also look to hats for something more.