Hats off to… hats

Gondola hat

Photographs by Bob Rozycki and courtesy Susan Saas

Susan Saas believes in the power of a topper

 To say Susan Saas is a hat person would be a bit of an understatement.

After all, the Pelham-based milliner and illustrator has been known to wear “The Parking Lot” hat, its design inspired by the shape of a plastic object found in yes, a parking lot.

She also wears “The Eiffel Tower,” which interprets the Parisian landmark in felt. And Saas was a bit sad to sell the “Poodle” hat, its top a handful of jaunty loops.

“I think someone who wears my hat has to have a certain confidence, fearlessness,” she says.

No matter the design, her one-of-a-kind, handcrafted hats are style statements, conversation starters and perhaps most important, vibrant ties to an age-old industry.

But Saas well knows they are not the “go-to” accessories for everyone.

“People get a little weird about hats,” she says. “You’re either a hat person or you’re not.”

Saas thinks nothing of popping on a finishing touch – perhaps inspiring others – whether headed to the corner shop or out for the evening.

“I feel like I’m complete when I have something on my head,” she says. “I love them. I love that when I wear them it makes people less afraid of them.”

After all, Saas says, she and her milliner friends know just how powerful a hat – fedora or cloche, newsboy cap or top hat – can be.

“We’re kind of shy, but when we put on our hats, it’s kind of like a force field in a way,” she says. “It’s a form of expression.”

Just look around. The ubiquitous fedora attracts wearers of all ages, while television shows ranging from “Boardwalk Empire” to “Mad Men” to “Downton Abbey” seem to put hats of many eras even more in the spotlight – and in the shopping cart.

“I’m always happy when people buy hats,” Saas says, but notes that she has a particular affinity for the artisan way of making them.

“You can go into a Walmart and you can get a straw hat for like $15, but it’s not…” she says, her voice trailing off.

She explains that while she appreciates hats becoming more accessible and affordable, “it kind of hurts the hatmaker.”

Saas’ hats, which start at around $50, attract a customer who appreciates an artist’s touch.

She’s just wrapping up a six-week run as a featured artist in “Craft-Tastic,” a seasonal exhibition and sale at the Pelham Art Center, where she also teaches millinery.

Gail Heidel, the center’s gallery and public program manager, has been a Saas fan since she first saw the neighborhood artist’s work. Her creations, Heidel says, which also include greeting cards, boxes, wall pieces and more, carry a distinct appeal.

“I love it because it seems more like Outsider Art to me,” Heidel says.

EARLY DAYS

Indeed, Saas creations have a singular style, a reflection of the woman who describes her younger self as an “artistic child” inspired by the past.

“I love the ’20s, Surrealism and (fashion designer Elsa) Schiaparelli,” she says, adding she’s a huge admirer of all things Art Deco. Indeed, her Pelham home is filled with an eclectic mix of art and collectibles with a nod decidedly toward the past.

And it all began in Saas’ earliest days.

“My grandmother loved hats. I think that might have been my entry point.”

Saas, who grew up in Rocky Hill in Connecticut’s Hartford County, fondly remembers a fascination with the seamstress’ suitcase full of fabric scraps.

“There was none of that ‘Don’t touch that,’ but it was more ‘Go ahead,’” she says.

And that encouraged her creativity and style, further developed through countless hours spent in thrift shops.

“There just came a time when I said ‘You’re spending way too much money on hats.’”

Learning how to make them would become a formal process for Saas, who received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design.

In college, Saas couldn’t quite select a major, jumping from jewelry making to printmaking before settling.

“I finally chose illustration, because there was a teacher who loved hats,” she says with a laugh.

When living for a spell in Ireland doing her illustration work, the millinery call grew strong, and Saas studied at the Grafton Academy of Dress Designing, a fashion college established in 1938.

Saas would become a successful illustrator, her work appearing in publications ranging from The New Yorker to The Irish Times, but hat making would not loosen its grip on her imagination. Coming back to New York, Saas worked toward a millinery certificate from the Fashion Institute of Technology as her career began to shift focus.

IN DESIGN

Saas would go on to become head design assistant to Rod Keenan of Rod Keenan New York. The award-winning member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America had a Harlem-based studio that was a creative hotbed for young talent.

“You just learn the old-school techniques,” she says. There, she concentrated on men’s designs.

“That sounds kind of limited, but it’s not.”

It’s all about tapping into a tradition, “to maintain that Old World integrity.”

There, she would work on hats destined for some pretty famous heads, ranging from Snoop Dogg to Brad Pitt to Michael Jackson.

Sometimes, the stars would come in themselves.

“You’d be in awe of them and they’d be in awe of you,” Saas says, noting how they were captivated by the dedication to tradition.

A particular point of pride is a top hat worn by Michael Jackson that grew out of one of her own designs.

“Michael Jackson’s stylist or someone working for Ebony magazine came by and said ‘We’re pulling hats for this shoot we’re doing.’”

Next thing Saas knew, the top hat – complete with a glove motif – was on Jackson’s head. She holds the prototype, with images of the final piece a permanent part of her portfolio.

From Keenan, Saas went on to work as a studio assistant at Arnold S. Levine Theatrical Millinery and Craft, where her Garment District-work included making hats for theater, opera and television.

There, her skills advanced further, as creating a hat to be worn performance after performance was even more intense.

“This thing needs to stand up. It needs to be durable,” she says of the work there.

Throughout, Saas has had private clients where her own creativity runs free.

She’s long designed hats for New York nightlife icon Kenny Kenny, who certainly pulls off daring.

“I do like to push the envelope,” Saas says, but notes some designs for Kenny Kenny even have had her wondering, “how he’s going to walk through doorways.”

It’s all been rewarding, Saas says. To date, two of her designs have been selected to be part of the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design.

It’s a validation for an artistry she hopes to return to full time one day.

“Right now, I kind of juggle a whole bunch of things, but if I could … I could do this every day.”

And do it the old-fashioned way.

“That’s the fun part, learning all those different stitches, the new stitches, what’s the strongest stitch, the best decorative stitch.”

She works with materials ranging from felt (a favorite) to straw to leather and cloth. She’s always on the lookout for trims, from feathers to gems, flowers to random finds.

Sometimes, she finds something so great, “I don’t want to do anything to it. I just want the material and the shape to talk … speak.”

A TRADITION CONTINUES

And for Saas, it’s the traditional way – all the way, with a combination of hand stitching and work on an “old industrial Singer. It’s like a tank.”

“There are some milliners who will glue,” she says. Shortcuts, she notes, are not for her. “Even if no one sees it, you know.”

She even hand paints her signature on each creation rather than having labels made.

And that dedication has been noticed.

The Hat Shop, a destination boutique on Thompson Street in Manhattan, has carried Saas’ hats for more than five years.

Ask owner Linda Pagan about Saas and the response is immediate, warm and enthusiastic.

“We love Susan,” she says. “She’s so sweet.”

And her hats, Pagan adds, are a hit with not only her savvy customers, but also her staff.

“She makes these brilliant hats that all the ladies of The Hat Shop buy.”

Pagan adds that Saas hats simply stand out for both their design and attitude.

“She’s just got a certain way about her that’s whimsical, but very well grounded.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

For more, contact Susan Saas at susansaas@hotmail.com. She teaches millinery at Pelham Art Center, 155 Fifth Ave. Call (914) 738-2525 or visit pelhamartcenter.org. Saas’ work is also featured at The Hat Shop, 120 Thompson St., Manhattan. Call (212) 219-1445 or visit thehatshopnyc.com.

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