A few weeks ago, I made the acquaintance of Tonya Gross, a Chicago-based milliner. I was in awe – a milliner? Based in America? Surely the American-made hat was a thing of the past, lost somewhere along the way with the handwritten letter. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Tonya makes gorgeous, custom-made hats and head wear that reminds me of a modern-day Charles James. Her story is inspirational: a former head fund manager, Tonya branched out to start her millinery business in 2007. She hasn’t looked back since.
Like any couturiere’s work, a closer look is needed to appreciate the intricate details. So Tonya agreed to let me interview her and highlight her gorgeous work.
Q) So you went from hedge funds to hear wear in 2006. But millinery isn’t exactly an intuitive process. When did you first start making hats, and who and what helped you perfect your craft?
I am new to labeling myself as a couture head wear designer. It’s a weird thing. I have been sewing most of my life but couture is something special. Yves St Laurent. Christian Dior. Charles James. Coco Chanel. Cristobal Balenciaga. tonya gross?! I am a long way from being in that company but I am excited for that journey!
Sewing as a kid, I loved to make my own clothes but had no patience for details. In the beginning, my mom would make me rip out the stitches and sew it again, insisting that I take my time. I drifted into head wear when I started thrifting in the 80’s for vintage head wear I could rework to cover my hair sculptures. The creative abyss began when I graduated from college, moved to Chicago and started my career in finance. Too busy to be creative, you know? I found myself longing for a balance of the cerebral and a creative life.
I left the hedge fund business and found millinery courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with Eia Radosavljevic. You could say it was my epiphany. I continued taking photography, design and fiber courses at SAIC but decided just to go for it, launching tonya gross millinery in 2007. I continue to learn about millinery through my new work and networking with others in millinery. Social networking has been a fantastic way to connect with people in the industry all over the world. There is love and passion out there and I enjoy that connectivity.
Q) I just ADORE that you have a page devoted to what inspires you. After taking a look, I see you are inspired mostly by other design disciplines, like architecture and furniture. Can you tell me more about what draws you to your inspiration? Do you prefer geometric/asymmetrical compositions? Intense colors?
Thank you! Chicago itself is pretty inspiring. Have you seen the Jeanne Gang building, Aqua?! The building and the woman are both inspiring to me. I take a lot of photographs and cull magazines for inspiration too. Ultimately, it is the material that is most inspiring for me. It tells me what form it wants to take by how it responds to my hands, the forms I carve, moisture, etc. In some ways, I think the lack of millinery supply in Chicago (meaning the immediacy of traditional millinery materials) has also lead to some surprise successes. I often have to source substitutes for millinery felt, straw, etc. Simple problem solving. Done in an exceptional way, of course!
Q) Who/what do you have in mind while designing and creating your hats?
It depends on the objective. If it is a commission, it is about the client and their needs first. The shape of their face. The color of a dress. The season. An event. My ideal is designing, executing and selling pieces from my own aesthetic. Sweet creative freedom! I love the sculptural aspect of the design. The shape of the hat can come from an object that I carve first.
Q) Tell us about some of your recent projects. Your hats were featured in Pamella Roland’s collection at Merecedes Benz Fashion Week for s/s 12. How exciting! Please tell us the details!
I had met Pamella earlier this year at the Kentucky Derby. She had purchased one of my pieces at that time. I was so touched. I heard from her team some time before MBFW and was asked to create several pieces like the one she had purchased in custom colors to go with designs for the runway. I had to turn the request around pretty quickly but was happy to do it. Pamella is also from Michigan and is known as a big supporter of art, artists and emerging designers like me. Pretty cool to not only show with Pamella but to have it photographed by Nigel Barker. I really enjoy the idea of collaborating with other designers and look forward to the chance to do it all again. That’s an open invitation to other designers, by the way!
Q) Do you think America will ever make the move back to wearing hats? The royal wedding really got a lot of public interest and appreciation for hats. Can you give some advice on how Americans can wear hats in our social settings?
Of course I believe people are wearing hats again! He or she is or will be wearing a hat every day if I have my way! I think the resurgence in hat wearing started over a decade ago but I know milliners- American, Irish, English, French- that continued to make hats through a time where everyone had said no one was wearing hats. I love them for their dedication to the millinery industry and their art. Even though fashion designers and magazines were not featuring milliners, they were still producing for their client base. I thank Philip Treacy, Stephen Jones, Albertus Swanepoel and others for getting head wear back on the runways and magazines again.
I am a business woman who designs and produces couture head wear. That is an important distinction from being an artist trying to start a business- which was me at the very beginning. I think it is as important (if not more) to make solid business decisions as it is to be a strong head wear designer. I know there is a want for impeccable quality and design. I am mindful of margins but I am not going to sacrifice anything to inferior materials or output. There are so many mass-produced operations that make it difficult for the designer/ small business to make headway in head wear. If I cannot scale my business right now, I am ok with that. I am in it for the long haul.
Q) What are some of your favorite pieces? I absolutely LOVE abunai yo!, pixie, and cut the mustard.
Thank you! ‘abunai yo!’ is definitely a favorite of mine too. I would like to say “my favorite piece is the one I haven’t made yet” but that wouldn’t be entirely true. My favorite piece is actually an “up-cycled” cashmere beret I made for my grandmother when she was battling cancer. I will never forget how her bright blue eyes sparkled in it. You feel so helpless when a loved one is ill and it felt good to provide some comfort to her. Along those lines, I just finished designing head scarves for a new line of accessories for cancer patients, Be In beCause, launching later this fall. Proceeds benefit cancer research-related programs in Chicago.
If you’re a hat enthusiast, you must get one of Tonya’s hats. She’s sure to be the next Stephen Jones – and wouldn’t you rather buy American?