Hats are huge this season

Headwear designer Rodney Patterson is the milliner of choice for astute fashion lovers and stars like Janelle Monae, Rihanna and Lizzo. He talks to Petra Mason about his creative process… and an interesting encounter with Janet Jackson

By Petra Mason
Yoko Big bowl brim hat, with tie detail
Rodney Patterson, milliner extraordinaire

Wearing faded denim dungarees and one of his own signature high crowned acorn hats, headwear designer Rodney Patterson commands attention. By the time I met him at Afropunk Brooklyn in August, his line of hats, known as ‘Esenshel’ (pronounced essential) had already picked up paying celebrity endorsements at a time when influencers were peaking. “Often, it’s the celebrities themselves who contact me wanting to buy hats – not their stylist. That’s a real endorsement as these are people who can get most anything for free and can afford to buy anything they want. It’s really flattering that they are choosing to spend their money with me,” says Rodney, whose clients include Lizzo, Billy Porter and Erykah Badu.

Esenshel is a luxury head wear brand started in New York in 2015

The Chicago-born, New York-based designer’s style is strong, graphic and abstract. The amazing Jean Paul Goude image of Grace Jones adorned with cones in primary colours comes to mind, as does the snap of elastic as Grace is unwrapped. Stripes and strong colour statements combined with utilitarian wearability: there is nothing frilly or fussy about Esenshel’s strong statements, and his gender-fluid shapes, styles and lines add definition to both his and hers equally.

Percher Beret hat from the A_W23 collection

I caught up with Rodney while the maker was in the midst of getting his Fall ’23 collection onto shelves in high-end retail outlets, as well as in his own 67 East 4th Street NYC and web shops.

Q: What advice would you give to young designers from Africa who are pursuing a fashion career?

A: “Be true to your point of view. Cultivate your style and technique and don’t worry about mass appeal or mass success. Your tribe and believers in your vision will loyally support you. It’s ok to be a niche brand.”

PUSH PIN PERCHER HAT in straw hemp

Q: Do you think that the fashion industry is more inclusive than other creative careers?

A: “I don’t think so. I think in most creative careers you hire the person that has the right point of view and skill set you’re looking for. The key is to be visible and included in the pool of candidates being considered. Social media has helped inclusivity in creative careers and has provided a platform to showcase craft and abilities.”

Q: Tell us about your personal journey as a hat designer.

A: “My headwear collection formed organically. Around 2015, I decided to stop spending great deals of money on clothing and instead decided to create a uniform for myself. The uniform was going to be jeans and a T-shirt with a great coat or blazer with a nice shoe and an interesting hat. I went to a hat maker’s shop in Soho and purchased hats and later started having him make custom hats in various proportions and shapes. When wearing the hats, I was constantly stopped and asked where they were from. That was the birth of Esenshel.”

Q: Tell us a bit about your celebrity clients.

A: “The celebrity thing is weird and sometimes wonderful. One of my favorite celebrity stories was when this guy contacted me through Instagram. He said, “I am a creative director, dancer and choreographer” and asked if he could call. I ignored the message. A few days later he called me through the Instagram app, but I didn’t answer. He messaged again and said that he’d like to talk to me, and assured me, “it will be worth your time”. I said we could talk the next day. I figured that would give me time to get my “shut-it-down” game face on! He called and told me he was choreographing a show and wanted to know if I would be interested in making hats for two scenes. He then proposed we have a group video call with Janet. He was referring to Janet Jackson. She’s the loveliest and most genuine person you will ever meet… well, unless you get to meet Samuel L. Jackson.

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