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Bettina Thomas: Milliner to Royalty and Celebrities

She may have stumbled into the world of hats, but the South Africa-based French milliner finds her creations donned by nobility, diplomats, and celebrities at royal weddings, official events, Fashion Weeks, and a YourLuxury photoshoot.

By ingrid-wood

French by birth, now residing in Cape Town, Bettina Thomas created the beautiful hat featured in the YourLuxury Africa Special Edition 2023/2024. The handcrafted black hat, made from imported European materials, features a crown with a stylised movement that distinguishes it from classical hats, explains Bettina. “The trimming comprises three black turkey feathers shaped into arrows, positioned to create an impression of aerial movement and an artistic touch. A soft black veiling adds a touch of femininity while contrasting with the hat’s sharp lines.”

Photographer: Alena Gelen @alenagelen

How did you get into millinery?

It was quite by chance. I was based in Rome, creating couture gowns and wedding dresses, and it was during a fitting session with one of my brides that my journey into the world of headwear design began. The bride’s mother asked me to craft a headpiece for her. Intrigued by the idea, I embarked on an experimental journey, fashioning a headpiece from feathers and a few carefully disassembled and reassembled silk flowers, that I arranged to match her outfit and personality. I was truly astonished by the transformation it brought about in my client. From there, in my quest for excellence, I made regular trips to London, where I was trained by the industry’s experts. These experiences have played a pivotal role in refining my craftsmanship.

What was the first hat you created and what do you think of it now?

My initial training involved spending a week with the milliner who worked with the late Queen Mother. Following that, I created my first small collection of hats, using them as a testing ground, and presented them at a charity event in Rome, attended by discerning clients. To my surprise, they sold out and this success inspired me to continue down this path. I hold those early creations dear as they mark the humble beginnings of an extraordinary creative journey. But, when I reflect on my progression, it’s clear how much I’ve grown, evolving from basic millinery to couture millinery.

What’s so special about hats?

A headpiece adds an incredible balance to an outfit, serving as the finishing touch that not only elevates the elegance of the dress and consequently the silhouette but, being so close to the eyes, also brings a remarkable radiance to the face. Beyond this, wearing a hat can make you discover a side of yourself you may never have known. It is such a reward witnessing the bewilderment and surprise on my client’s faces when they gaze at themselves in the mirror, and that’s when the magic happens!

What makes a successful piece of millinery?

A couture headpiece cannot be successful unless it’s impeccably crafted and comfortable to wear. There’s nothing worse than a hat that causes a headache. I have immense respect for my clients and my art, and a product should look as perfectly made on the outside as it is on the inside. My attention to detail is obsessive, and I constantly refine and rework until I’m entirely satisfied. There’s no shortcut in this meticulous handwork, which definitely feels like self-inflicted torture, but the end result is undeniably worth it. Obviously, true success is also measured by the client’s joy.

Photography Alexa Singer for Africa is Now Mag

What do you love most about this industry? 

The boundless creativity. There are no limits when it comes to shape, size or texture and absolutely no obligation whatsoever to follow trends. It allows me to express my passion for materials and transform a vision into a 3D creation. One never stops learning, and reinvention is a constant process. I am very tactile, and millinery is a fantastic way of indulging my passion for sculpting and shaping all sorts of materials. I love finding the balance between thinking outside the box while keeping clean, timeless lines – it’s like walking a tightrope, that very thin line that makes the difference between vulgarity and elegance. I often express my aim as creating headpieces that blend my French background with the richness of African culture.

Photographer Christine Le Roux. Model Love Meyer

What inspires you?

I don’t actively seek inspiration; instead, I allow it to come to me through a sensory journey. From a very young age, I was fortunate to have been taught by my grandmother and mother to see, listen to and smell nature in all its detail. Music is another vital aspect of my creative process. I can’t work in silence so when starting a project, I find the right piece of music and set it to loop until I’ve completed my work… which may result in listening to the same piece for many days! Art is also a source of inspiration as it stimulates my sense of shape and colours. I often scatter various materials and textures on my worktable and let my fingers play.

What’s the craziest brief you’ve ever had?

It’s quite difficult to single out one as the craziest, but there have been some memorable requests. An American client asked me to design a massive red heart for the Kentucky Derby. I created a transparent Perspex headpiece that mimicked the appearance of draped chiffon fabric for a singer, who wore it as a ghostly cover over his head. An Italian client commissioned a sculpture featuring an explosion of feathers mounted on a giant ring.

What is your favourite piece?

My most recent creation for the catwalk stands out. It was a striking piece resembling a giant fountain of white drops mounted on a small black headpiece. I also have a soft spot for a funky hot pink percher mounted with a crin visor and a vertical stylised Perspex bow on top. I am proud of the two headpieces I crafted using coloured springbok skin. There’s also a zebra-printed silk-covered hat featuring a big red feather flower that a hummingbird appears to feed from – all entirely handmade. And of course, I cherish my classic, timeless Dior wide-brim hats.

To contact Bettina, go to www.bettinathomas.com

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