Having a head that’s too big for hats might put some ladies off going to the races. Not so Sally Harper: instead of getting disheartened, she decided to make her own. And today she does that professionally, under the moniker of Sharper Millinery.
The seed was planted at a fairly young age. At about 6 or 7 years old, Sally had a “rather stylish” great aunt who would come over to the family house, always dressed in a matching hat and coat. Realising her aunt stood out from everyone else, and that people always referred to her co-ordinating co-ordinates, Sally would sneak off during her aunt’s visits to try out her fashions.
With a carpenter for a grandfather, a knitter for a grandmother, a draughtsman for a father and a mother who delighted in assisting her daughter’s – often winning – entry into Easter bonnet competitions, it was perhaps inevitable that Sally would go on to do something with her hands: in 1991 she took a degree in art in Birmingham, followed that by teaching creative skills in schools, and capped it all off in 2004 with an MA specialising in millinery.
In the middle of all that an interest in the races developed, along with discovering the conflict between her head and the hats she saw for sale, and that her problem was widely shared. “Lots of people say: “Hats don’t suit me”. But when you’ve only got a limited amount to try on the high street, most won’t suit you.”
And so the idea came: first to make a hat for her own head, then for those of friends, and finally to turn that into a business. Sharper Millinery was born in 2006 and got its first paying client, who is still a customer today, in 2007. “When she first came in [her hat] was quite a small design, but now they are feats of engineering.” Sally now has a loyal core of race-going ladies who come back every year. Weddings are the other biggie, also providing a list of returning customers (hopefully not too many recurring brides!). “If a woman has several children, I might see her again and again as weddings come around.”
Citing the 1920s and 1950s among her sources of inspiration, Sally is keen to be anything but old-fashioned: “I would hate to think my work looked the same each season. I think it’s good to look backwards and forwards, to use new fabrics and to create different looks.”
If you’re of the view that hats simply don’t suit you, Sally has a word of advice. “Just go out and try lots of different things on. Some people say a round cloche dome doesn’t fit a round face, but it might. There is no definite rule. It’s mainly about confidence.”
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