I Want Your Job: David Dunkley, Milliner
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I Want Your Job: David Dunkley, Milliner

Mad as a hatter? David Dunkley's elegant creations are for "confident people" who aren't afraid of a feather or two.

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At first glance, David Dunkley Fine Millinery is an unassuming storefront on Bathurst Street, but even a cursory peek in the window reveals a wonderland. Feathers sway gently next to straw fedoras; great sweeping veils are displayed beside demure bejeweled tiaras. Dunkley, 44, has been making hats for 13 years, and his collection of couture and ready-to-wear toppers runs the gamut from avant-garde to blushingly bridal. In addition to what’s on the shelves, Dunkley and his team of three work on three to four bespoke hats every week, each one taking between eight to 12 hours to complete.

Dunkley made his first hat at the Toronto District School Board’s course on hatmaking, but quickly went on to complete George Brown’s two-year diploma program in millinery. He furthered his education by getting in touch with Queen Elizabeth’s milliner, Rose Cory.

“I asked if she taught,” Dunkley recalls. “She responded with a phone call, and said that would be delighted to teach me, and so off to London I went.”

Cory takes on five students for a week-long hatmaking intensives. Dunkley has now attended eight of these intensives. “She’s very proud of me, which is a lovely thing,” he says modestly. Last time he visited, they talked about designing hats for television; since Dunkley has done work for Being Erica, he was in a position to offer her some guidance.

Torontoist: How did you get started as a hatmaker?

David Dunkley: The great thing is that no hatmaker ever starts out to be a hatmaker. Every hatmaker, even the most famous ones, have fallen into it by mistake. I’m the classic story of that. I had achieved my dream job, which was to work for a candidate who became a politician who became a Member of Parliament. I very quickly discovered that I didn’t love my dream job. So be careful what you wish for! I then decided to take a class through the board of education. The course I wanted was full, so I took hat-making instead. I discovered I liked it. I thought it was very interesting, and very sculptural. I had always want to learn some kind of sculptural something-or-other, but I had never done anything until hat-making. For me, it was a bit of an epiphany that I enjoyed it so I just continued to do it. That year, there was an opportunity to leave my office with a package, so I took it. I went to the St. Lawrence Market and opened my stall, and was very quickly invited indoors to have a permanent space.

What is the process of making a hat? Do you design with a specific client in mind, or do you let the materials dictate the process?

When it comes to making a hat, sometimes I’m just inspired: it could be something organic, something from the fashion world, a little glittery something I saw in a window. For the ready-to-wear collection, there are standard shapes that people like, and standard embellishments that we create. I try not to create anything for that collection that you can get anywhere else. Whether that’s the quality of the hat, or the embellishment, I’ll try to have some slight take on it that’ll make it unique. There’s no point making something you can buy in the Eaton Centre.

When it comes to the couture collection, the joy of being an artist is that I can go off and do anything I want. I’ll generally build a storyboard, and a theme, and we’ll jump off from there. This year, for the Queen’s Plate couture collection, I started with the silks, which is what the jockeys wear. Queen Elizabeth, in 2010, was here and she wore the colour teal. I used those two things as the jumping-off point and built the collection from there. Each year, I also do one or two micro-collections, and those are just pure indulgence on my part. It’s just whatever I want. Right now, I’m working on one with maps.

You work with a lot of different materials, different silhouettes, and your style seems quite varied. Do you have an overarching theme that drives your work? Is there something that would say, “This is a David Dunkley hat”?

When you’re designing couture, certainly the materials will start to dictate what they will and won’t do. I hate to be airy-fairy about it, but there is a whispering of that as it starts to come together. The lace mask is a great example of that. I had one particular idea of just having a tiara, and as the tiara was coming together, the lace wasn’t going to work in the shape that I wanted. The lace dictated the shape that it would be. I didn’t plan on doing a mask with it, but it just kind of evolved as I was making it. As it started to come together that way, I thought it looked great, so I continued on with it.

My customer is generally a confident woman, or a confident man. I design for those people. I don’t design to convert people to wearing hats. I like making hats for people who get it. It’s from the first-time bride, to the 75- year-old woman who wants to wear this as she walks down the street because she’s that confident. We dress people in the arts, and they might want a traditional hat, but made in a funky or unusual fabric.

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You’re the official designer for the Queen’s Plate?

I am the first-ever official milliner for the running of the 156th Queen’s Plate. Isn’t that a great title?

That is a great title! How did that happen?

I approached them and asked if we could talk about me being involved with them. They agreed to that meeting, and I said that I would enjoy working with them, and that we should help build the prominence of wearing a hat to the races. I always hear, “I have nowhere to wear my hats,” especially my work, which is quite grand. We had agreed that I would be the official milliner to the Queen’s Plate, which is a lovely title, and they had said yes. I’ve been the official milliner for the last three years. I designed a couture collection especially for them, which debuted in this past April, and we have a fashion show. We’ll start designing next year’s collection starting in October. Each piece is quite complex. For example, one of the pieces is hand-painted horses. Each horse is hand-cut and hand-painted on paper, and that took months to do, to give you an idea of the complexity of the collection. That show was eighteen pieces. Once the collection’s done, it’s all put up for sale, although if I’m being honest, I hold back a couple of my favourites.

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Hat-making is having a moment and a resurgence, but it’s definitely an art form that isn’t going to be seen or worn by everyone. How do you keep things moving forward and feeling fresh?

The great thing about hats is that people have never stopped wearing [them]. How they wear them has changed. Right now, we’re discussing the high-couture component of what I do, and it’s the highest art form and there’s a market for that. And a season for that as well, which is generally weddings and races. It doesn’t last all year the way it would have in the golden age of hats. But people still wear hats. They wear baseball caps, and they wear fedoras, and what we do now is just not embellish them as heavily as we used to. If you look at a man’s hat from 1932 and from today, they’re exactly the same shape. Young people have discovered hats, and they’re fashionable because of that, so that’s a resurgence in the market. But there has always been a core market. In the 1980s, hats had taken a resurgence because of Princess Diana, and we in the industry had always hoped that, perhaps when Prince William married, that Kate would help with that. She has, and it’s been bigger than we thought it would be. The Kate Middleton factor has had a huge influence on fascinators and bridal millinery.

What is the future of millinery? Will it stay as a special occasion look, or will it come back to the day-to-day?

I think the industry went away for a very long time, and it just didn’t exist. It’s come back, and I feel that it’s come back in a strong way and be consistent. You haven’t seen a million hat shops open up, which tells you how large the market is, but the people who are running hat shops see them as consistent and stable money-making ventures. While growth would be great, I think there will be consistency in that. Culturally, in Canada, we wear hats informally. We’ll wear them to a restaurant, to a concert, out for a walk. I’ve even seen casual hats worn at the opera. I think I sound like a hat snob [laughs]. Culturally, that’s what we do here. But there’s a subculture of people who believe that, when you go to a formal event, you wear a formal hat. I don’t think you can be a hat-maker here and not serve both groups. There’s not enough of any one market to survive.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

I’m so lucky to do it, and I work with a really great team. They fill in the gaps where I’m weak. When I think that I want to design something for the couture collection, I feel so lucky that I can come up with the idea and create it, and then with my knowledge and skills, and their skills, I can execute that. That’s when I have the most joy. I’m the face, but gosh, some of the skills those ladies have is amazing. It sounds a little Pollyanna, but it’s true.