Supremely talented milliner Julie Fleming is renowned for crafting unique and beautiful hats, fascinators, and headbands of outstanding style. Her designs have been worn by royalty (read: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall) and various celebrities. She is also the maker of hats for characters in The Doctor Blake Mysteries series on ABC.
In this feature, Julie tells us of her creative adventures, which began while she was a trainee under the late Philip Somerville - hat maker to Princess Diana - and now as one of Australia’s finest milliners, as well as a tutor of some of the best classes and workshops in hat making. As a bonus, get 10% off on all her August classes! Simply use code hatdrama10 when booking.
How did you get interested in millinery?
After art school, I was making hats from flat fabric for a friend’s shop but did not know how to do it properly. I landed in London sometime after, where I decided to ring all the milliners and ended up with three interviews. I was lucky on my last interview and got a job in the busy “salon” selling hats at Philip Somerville leading up to Ascot. After that, I was able to go up to the workroom and start my study.
Did you always want to be a milliner?
Not really, but I have always made things by hand, especially jewellery. For example, I can remember as a 14-year-old trying to work out how to put a hole in a shell to turn them into earrings. I spent 5 years in art school and have Diploma in Fine Art, and Post Grad majoring in Printmaking and Painting. I find it amusing that I failed sculpture at art school, and basically, that is what I do now - making little sculptures for people to wear on their heads!
It must have been quite the experience training with Philip Somerville. What is the most important thing that you learned from him?
I personally learnt a huge amount from Philip Somerville, but more to do with the selling and dealing with the customers, as well as famous and royal clients. I believe he admired what I was doing, as he was actually a New Zealander and had gone to London to learn as I had. My wage was very low and he helped by paying me extra for work I did at home.
The ladies in the workroom taught me excellent workroom practices, as there was a very strict start time. Morning tea time, lunch time, etc. and so time management was very important. A couple of them were in their 80s and had been milliners since they were 14 years old, so they had a lot to pass on to me. They taught me about recognising the best fabrics and materials to use. They also taught me to use a tape measure, as previous to working there, I was big ‘guesstimater’!
Did you find it difficult to establish yourself?
I started from home immediately upon my return to Melbourne in 1989. I came back from London with 17 pieces of luggage, bringing with me things that I knew I would need to begin. I spent quite a bit of time while still in London collecting and making things that I knew I would need. I was lucky in that I had a major article written about me in the Melbourne newspaper The Age and from that point on, the phone never stopped ringing. It snowballed from there!
What made you decide to teach millinery?
I enjoy teaching as it means I can pass on my skills to the next generation. I am also big on quality and raising the standard of millinery in general. I like to make absolutely perfectly (as taught) to a very high standard and hope I can pass this on.
What are the most interesting discoveries students make in your classes?
Often it is simply an understanding of how fabrics and materials behave using the way it is cut and using heat and steam.
What have been some of your proudest moments as a milliner and as a teacher of millinery?
It’s very satisfying when someone loves what they have made, and I have hopefully opened up a gateway to bigger and better quality millinery.
How did you develop your taste and what inspires you today?
My taste is something I’m pretty sure I was born with. But I believe I’m also influenced by my mother, who was a dressmaker. My design is a reaction to the materials around me and pushing them to the furthest possible limits.
Do you have a favourite type of hat that you enjoy designing?
I love making for film and television and stage, as I find it really challenging. I have just completed two hats for Opera Victoria. Both of these hats were classic hats - a bowler hat and a large priest’s hat. I love making for particular eras.
Do you have any exciting projects in the works?
Yes, I am currently making a hat for Boy George! (We all know how much he loves to wear hats.)
Dream of making fancy hats?
Who ever said that hats were out of style is clearly out of touch with fashion; because seriously, these occasion toppers sure make you a stand out from the crowd.
So if you’ve been hesitant about hats, we urge you to reconsider your millinery-related hang-ups. Or do yourself one better, and spark an interest in this centuries-old art. Try on a few looks for size and pick one that fits your personality - or even better, make one that suits your unique style!
English trained milliner Julie Fleming will teach on how to make hats using time-honoured methods. It’s an intensive class, and students will learn to create amazing headwear that can keep up with any fashion trend.