At the beginning of the 20th century, millinery was so commonplace that many women decorated their own hats. But with the social movements of the late 1960s, fashion became more casual and upscale hats fell by the wayside.
Today, there are only a handful of famous milliners, notably Brits Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy and recent Target collaborator Eugenia Kim, based in New York. But over the last few years, hats have started to come back into vogue, and now L.A. native Rehn Dudukgian, 28, is hoping to join the roster of great hat designers with Bijou Van Ness, her new line of couture creations that fuse the romance of 20th century European fashion with pure Hollywood glamour.
"A lot of people say that millinery is a dying art," said Dudukgian, who credits "Mad Men" and Dita Von Teese with fashion's renewed interest in vintage-style hats. "But a well-constructed hat stands the test of time and can be passed on from generation to generation."
Inspired by her mother's vintage hat collection from the 1960s, Dudukgian, researched millinery online and took classes from local experts. In December 2009, she launched the handmade line, named after the street where she lives in Hollywood.
Her hats, which range in price from $150 to $395, feature pure silks, fine crystals and vintage brooches. There's a classic 1920s-style cloche with a triple loop black bow, a wide-brimmed white parasisal straw hat with an oversize black flower and charming birdcage wire veil adorned with peonies.
"I never imagined I'd be in fashion," said Dudukgian, a UCLA graduate who worked as an assistant underwriting manager for Countrywide for two years before receiving her MBA at UC Irvine in 2007. "My business background paid off because it helped me create a brand and transform my passion into a company."
Dudukgian's timing is just right. Hats are having a major moment in fashion, from the ubiquitous straw styles seen all over town to the more formal wide-brim versions found at the Del Mar racetrack and at summer weddings.
"Hats are a really easy and, more importantly, affordable way to make an otherwise basic outfit into a bolder, more stylish one," said Margot Nason, editor of the Intelligence Group's trendcentral.com. "And more dramatic headwear, like that worn by Lady Gaga, and more formal headwear as seen on 'Mad Men,' enable wearers to transport themselves to a different era."
Nason noted that for both men and women, fashion has been trending away from the "artfully disheveled" look and is moving toward a more traditional aesthetic.
"Our customers are gravitating towards styles with a contemporary look and feel, like Panama hats and straw fedoras," said Brooke Jaffe Scott, Bloomingdale's accessories fashion director. "It's important to our customer that she protects her skin in the sun, while looking chic and modern at the same time."
As customers increasingly shop from the same mass retailers, those wanting to stand out often turn to accessories to define a look. "I think fashion goes in cycles, and in this time of recession we are selling more accessories than ever," said Traffic buyer Steven Torres, who stocks Bijou Van Ness at the Beverly Center store. "Hats are great because it can make the whole outfit and you'll be noticed." K. Plastnina on Robertson also carries the line.
Each Bijou Van Ness hat, which can take six hours on average to make, is lined in purple fabric, the designer's signature color. And while most would agree that Dudukgian's creations are chic, many women start out thinking they don't look good in hats or that they can't pull off the look.
'There's definitely a hat for every lady, so I would say they haven't found the right style yet," said Dudukgian, who has designed hats for Perez Hilton, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Von Teese. "I think if a woman wore one of my hats her whole look would change, as would her whole evening, because a woman who wears a hat conjures up glamour, sophistication and a little mystery."
For fall, Dudukgian is creating 20 styles and adding bridal to the mix. "I'm using more feathers, velour felt, darker colors and gabardine wool from England," she said.
Dudukgian has joined the recently formed Millinery Guild of Southern California, which has 24 members. The monthly meetings, run by local milliner S. Montez Murphy, offer technique classes, study groups and general networking.
"My hats tap into the glamour of the past, and I feel so inspired by L.A.," said Dudukgian, who enjoys shopping at the Way We Wore on La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica's Vintage Expo when she's not working. "I'm not saying that we should wear hats 24/7, but I think when you're dressing up, it adds something to your outfit and shows your personality."