Once Around the Block with Philip Treacy
Long Reads 26.12.2017
Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Kevin Davies
Philip Treacy’s collection of unique wooden blocks, handcarved by a master craftsman in Paris, represent a rare and very personal library of the shapes that have formed his career. Just don’t call them art…
If the sculptural forms depicted on the following pages seem oddly familiar, that’s probably because they are. The material they’re carved from – soft beechwood – might throw us off the scent, but the shapes themselves are instantly recognisable. They are regularly seen by an audience of millions: at world premieres and awards ceremonies, at race meetings and in sports arenas. These are the wooden blocks upon which the hat designer Philip Treacy works his magic, fashioning his world-famous creations to sit atop the heads of high society and pop divas alike.
‘They’re all made by a man in Paris called Renzo Re,’ says Treacy. The Parisian blockmaker for La Forme has been an integral part of Treacy’s creative process for a quarter of a century now. ‘I’ve worked with him for about 25 years. There are many people in the world who make hat blocks, but he’s by far the best. He works alone in Paris and has done all his life. He has made the hat moulds for all my hats in Paris.’
But what is it that puts Mr Re ahead of his peers? ‘His eye is more …exact than other people,’ Treacy enthuses. ‘I have worked – and I still do work – with other people occasionally, but he’s the best.’ The choice of wood is for purely practical reasons. ‘It’s beechwood because it’s softer,’ Treacy explains; ‘So you can stick pins into it. The materials are moulded onto the actual wood, so that’s how we use the actual shapes.’
Each shape is unique – Treacy admits he has no idea how many he has created over the years (‘I’m not sure! I’ve never counted. We’re just surrounded by them!’) – but the blocks do occasionally get re-used for similar designs. ‘I can use it in lots of different ways, so for instance, some of my hats in the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, one or two of those started out as medieval wimples, but then I used the shape in a different way for another show of ours.
But it’s usually just made for one piece.’ For all the praise he heaps on the craftsmanship of Re, Treacy makes it clear that the creative process begins and ends with him. ‘I have the moulds here and make the prototypes for the shape – so I have all the shapes here and he carves what I send him,’ he explains. ‘He’s not really interpretive. I mean he does an amazing job, but I have to give him the initial shape.’
Rather, Re’s skill is in his ability to accurately replicate Treacy’s prototypes in unerring detail. ‘He carves by hand and by eye exactly what I send him as a prototype. So I spend a long period of time making the actual mould, and then he copies what I give him in wood.’
These prototypes are created by Treacy in three dimensions, out of a material called sparterie (made from woven willow strips on a gauze base). It is this process of creating that Treacy most enjoys about his work. For all the satisfaction of seeing his designs on the heads of the great, the good and the powerful (that’s Grace Jones covered at least), he says he gets the most pleasure from ‘the physicality of making something out of nothing.
‘Hat designing is about a passion for creation really,’ Treacy explains. ‘So if I designed clothes, I would just sketch it and a pattern cutter or a machinist would make it, whereas with hats it’s all-encompassing. You start with a two-dimensional material, and then you turn it into three dimensions, so it’s interesting to do that.’
Treacy’s career in hat design began at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. ‘I made things on my own,’ he recalls, ‘and then I was taught by Shirley Hex at the Royal College of Art in London. When you don’t really know how to make something, you make up your own ways. But then she taught me in reverse!’
Incidentally, Treacy famously baulks at the term ‘milliner’; not for any pretensions to art in his chosen profession, but simply because it is a misnomer. ‘A milliner was someone who decorated dresses from the 17th century onwards,’ he explains in the patient tones of someone who’s had to say this on more than one occasion.
‘But I don’t really care what anybody calls me! I think I’m free to call myself whatever I feel like. And so I’m a hat designer. But I’m not so precious, I don’t really mind.’This lack of preciousness and sentimentality extends to his attitudes to the blocks and prototypes themselves. ‘It’s not like they’re my babies. They’re precious in the sense that they’re my library of shapes and I use them all the time. They’re the prototypes for everything. Really.’
In fact, he doesn’t even give them identifying names or numbers. ‘No I don’t, I just memorise them. If you’re making something with your hands, you memorise it.’ Nor is he one for looking back – ‘You’re always thinking about the next thing, but I do use the moulds a lot for everything.’
That includes their constant re-use in inspiring him when creating new designs. ‘Over many years I’ve developed my own language, you could say. And these are the templates I like to make, so it’s like a map of my career in… moulds!’
Is he the type to be satisfied with a finished shape, or does he constantly make tweaks and adjustments to his original designs? ‘Well, you can’t really tweak it when it’s in wood! That’s why the process that we’re focusing on here is very important, because this is where everything is technically worked out.’
For Treacy, his greatest source of satisfaction is a simple one: ‘Working. I like to work. Work is good. Work keeps us busy.’
Amen to that. But looking at these incredibly crafted blocks, handcarved by a master woodmaker according to an exacting design, does Treacy not feel – as many of his fans, supporters and clients do – that his work can often enter the realm of fine art and sculpture? ‘You know, people can see an artistic aspect in it,’ he demurs, ‘but I am just trying to make hats, really.’