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FASHION : Taking Hats to Heart : Pachara started out crafting millinery at her kitchen table. Now it's a career and creative outlet for her.


When Pachara came to California from New York City in the 1980s, 200 hats came with her. This was long before she launched her business designing and selling women's hats; this was her personal collection.

"Why would you leave the house without a hat?" asks Pachara, a third-generation milliner. "I wear a hat every day of my life. I don't care if you want to walk out in black jeans and black cowboy boots, you can still wear an elegant hat."

In the studio in her Thousand Oaks home, the designer is finishing towers of handmade cloches for her next show. She is focusing on brown this week, and is steaming feather-light mocha straw into head-hugging shapes for trimming.

A mound of tawny-dyed chiffon flowers lies ready for her touch. "I never know how this is going to come out when I'm doing it," she says. "I dip them in tea sometimes to get what I want."

It was destined that this woman design hats; but alas, her family missed the cues. While Pachara's mother and great aunt spent their careers joyfully bringing hats into the world, Pachara was sent off to college to earn an accounting degree.

In her life as an accountant, Pachara had a traditional first and last name, which she discarded when the artist within finally took command. This is the Pachara who came West, where she worked at the film studios, supported a son and daughter through college and volunteered as an art curator for the Los Angeles Urban League.

Then, four years ago, Pachara found her true calling when she lost her accounting job due to downsizing at Columbia Pictures.

Pachara had long made herself hats in her kitchen, using a tea kettle to steam them into shape, and afterward adding whatever ornaments were on hand.

Minus an income, she made up a quantity of old-fashioned straw and cotton hats trimmed with the wool of old sweaters, feathers and beads and inspired by styles of the 1920s and '30s.

"My daughter said, 'Nobody's going to buy those!' " Pachara recalls. "All of a sudden, they were gone--and I decided to go into business."

Business, to Pachara, did not mean setting up a shop. Formerly married to a painter, she was familiar with the art circuit, and began entering her work in shows, not discouraged then that there was no category for her skill--or that many organizers didn't know what millinery was.

"If the application (to the shows) says 'fine art only, no crafts,' I send slides and I have been getting in," Pachara says.

Two or three times a month, she takes her hats on the road to places such as Carmel, the Bay Area, La Quinta and Tempe, Ariz. Last month she entered Artwalk '94 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

"I had all the artists around me selling their $20,000 paintings . . . and they are all sitting there looking at me because all the husbands are looking at artwork, and all the women are in my space playing," she says.

At shows, Pachara is careful to match hats to wearers.

"I don't allow people to just come in and try on a hat and run out," she says. "They will put the wrong hat on. I can't wait to get near them.

"I match the vibrance, the whole glow of their face and hair color and skin tone--so everything they wear, it matches. It can go from a wedding to the pool."

Also, Pachara says, women need help in choosing a hat large enough to give them freedom and avoid giving them "hat hair." She demonstrates for customers, showing them how to wear a hat low over the forehead.

"My daughter tells me, 'One of these days one of these ladies will hit you," Pachara says, amused.

But somebody has to help the hatless. Pachara believes that women, especially Californians, need guidance in the whole concept of wearing a hat. They try one on and immediately feel conspicuous and unsure of themselves, the designer says.

"Eighty percent of wearing a hat is hat mentality," she says. "A woman with a lot of self confidence--she will walk out with six hats."

Keeping a show schedule is not easy. Next month Pachara plans a local open house, but she's far from ready to settle down in a shop. Already, she has turned down an offer to sell her hats through a Los Angeles boutique.

"I said, 'I don't work in large quantities, but we can talk,' " says Pachara. She said, 'Well, I want two with that color without those flowers and with one of this . . .' I never called her back. You're not going to walk in and tell a fine artist what colors to use in a painting!"

Her work is a way of life. Pachara sits down in her studio at dawn, and might work 12 hours. She may expand the color palette, or try new decorations from forays to craft and thrift shops.

When she finishes a hat, her label goes in the crown, avoiding a fixed orientation of front and back, because, Pachara says, "How do we know who we are going to be tomorrow?"

After a tour of her studio, a visitor points out to Pachara how lucky she is to have entered the millinery field just when fashion has brought hats back into vogue.

The designer appears not to comprehend. Her answer is ready, delivered with even more than her usual assurance.

"Hats," she says with a level look, "never left."


* FYI: A show schedule for Pachara Designs is available by calling (800) 399-7552.

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