Three guesses which headline-grabbing designer has had the most influence on hats this season.
If you guessed Christian Lacroix, congratulations! You win the flying saucer-shaped style, complete with its very own rose garden.
"Lacroix has inspired all this romance," rhapsodizes Frank Olive, one of the deans of the American hat business.
Current Lacroixisms that Olive and other designers have incorporated into their collections include huge platter brims, particularly "forward hats," where the brim is wider in front and tipped down. (Come fall, "everything will be going up" again, Olive said.) And no matter what the shape, hats are sprouting a profusion of plant life.
Bursts of bows, lace or tulle are also cropping up on straw. And hats are now emerging in Lacroix colors--as vibrant as a garden in Provence--such as buttercup, hyacinth, celery, turquoise and lilac.
"Some people say it looks like an upside-down salad bowl," designer Eric Javits says of one of his key shapes for spring, a wide, down-turned hat tied with a moire bow.
Javits, whose hats are sold at Neiman-Marcus, also credits the Paris influence, but he thinks skirt lengths are just as important in dictating hat size.
"Big hats look good with short, shaped lengths," he says. "They're also very good around a pool."
Whatever the cause, women are responding. Javits reports that sales are up 25% over last year. And as for Olive, taking a breather during a selling spree at Neiman-Marcus: "This is the best season of my entire career. The hats are selling so fast we can't keep them in stock."
Actually, his business took a nose dive right after Black Monday last fall, Olive says, but the return to romanticism has pushed business past pre-Black Monday figures. The only problem he has is keeping up with the demand.
"We only have 'x' number of hands," he says of the 23 milliners who work in his New York factory. Each milliner can produce only one large, intricate hat per day.
The woman on the street isn't the only one responding to the new big, fancy styles. Olive says every designer he supplies with hats for the unveilings of their collections, including Oscar de la Renta ("Oscar showed all Lacroix bows"), Pauline Trigere, Bob Mackie, Adele Simpson and Betty Hanson, are demanding romantic looks as well.
"I do think we're selling softer, prettier things, because there are so many question marks today. We're so computerized, so pressured, the economy is dubious," Olive says. "And a hat, well, it's the most frivolous statement you can make."
Javits maintains that most women buy hats for special occasions, such as weddings and parties. But Olive claims that there's hardly an occasion not special enough to warrant a hat. "We sell loads to businesswomen," he says. "I have a woman who wears one when she lectures to keep the attention on her. Real estate agents say hats give them authority. A lawyer can wear one with a little suit.
"Young girls who are just discovering hats sometimes ask me when it's \o7 improper \f7 to wear a hat," Olive adds. "I say, 'Maybe when you're taking a bubble bath.' "