Crystal Birch square profile

Crystal Birch: Under your hat

SA’s cool cat milliner Crystal Birch, on springbok hide bikinis and her new PPE range.

Before Crystal Birch blazed onto the sartorial scene, South Africans had a scarcity of options when it came to expressing themselves through hats. Not one to follow the path well-trodden, Crystal’s hats are creative masterpieces, some are bold renditions of the classics while others are entirely fanciful. With names like Disney Funeral and Quack Attack (of which Oh Duck! is one design) she has a sense of humour in her approach to her craft that we admire. Then there’s her Beach to Bush collection declaring even more admiration. She was quick off the blocks with her Covid-19 inspired PPE collection which is characteristically innovative…because, why wear any old mask when you could sport one of Crystal’s original Shield Bucket Hats? We chatted to the woman behind the brand…

Do you ever look back at some of your custom creations and ask yourself what you were thinking?

Certainly. But they felt right at the time; I think it’s important to reflect and learn from some of my more odd creations. I’m getting a flashback to when I made springbok hide bikinis for a kykNET Survivor pilot show when I was still studying. While many custom pieces lead with the client’s concept from the start, I do stand my ground more firmly these days to align the request with my vision.

There’s heaps of humour in your creations, what tickles your funny bone?

People’s sense of humour, odd situations, puns and the mispronunciation of words. I love a dry British sense of humour, memes (the internet can have me rolling on the floor laughing for days!) For example, my 3-year-old says that mushrooms live in the sun, I love those surreal conversations with her and her hilarious expressions.

How did the opportunity to work with celebrated milliners Noel Stewart and Piers Atkinson come about?

I had no idea who they were at the time, so I guessed that helped. I applied for a short course and Noel was the lecturer, he introduced me to Piers, who made a big impact on my millinery journey. I admire both so much.

What lifelong lessons have these hat-making mavericks taught you?

To have a sense of humour and to play… a hat is the dot on the I (Stephen Jones said that) - a hat can protect you, uplift you, celebrate with you and bring out another persona. If you put it on the floor upside down and start performing, it can make you some money too.

Who’s next on your collaboration list?

Freyja Sewell Design, from London; whom I met at Design Indaba 2019. She inspires me with her empathetic, scientific design and our Covid-19 related design will be something to look forward to.

Coronavirus… are you a doomsdayer or an optimist?

I’m the uber optimist, the change of the world is what we needed but my heart is bleeding for the most vulnerable in this. I’m positive in order to keep my team motivated and try and re-unite all of our staff (currently only a third of our team is operating). This pandemic will change our ways going forward, if it doesn’t change yours, then you’re not in tune with Mother Earth.

You’ve made some product adaptations to fit the pandemic. Are people lapping it up?

We’ve had an overwhelming response to our visors and to the great quality of our masks. We changed direction so quickly by using everyone’s strengths and determination, it’s been inspiring to think in a different way and see what our team is capable of.

What is the one question no one has asked you that you are gagging to answer?

“Can I be your investor?” To which I’d answer: YES please, here are my bank details!

What’s in Crystal Birch’s crystal ball?

Going into interiors… using our hat press to develop new shapes for lights and lampshades. Recycling old polyester clothes into Happy Hats to avoid landfills (watch this space). And I see people impeccably dressed from head to toe…appreciating their newfound freedom. | @therealcrystalbirch

WORDS: Mila Crewe-Brown
PRODUCTION: J-P de la Chaumette