Defining Millinery with Local Chicago Artist Tonya Gross

By , September 15, 2009 8:00 am

Millner Tonya Talks About Her Hats

Millner Tonya Talks About Her Hats

With summer slowly trickling away, funsherpa digs into the Chicago fashion scene to rediscover the city’s top talent.  We sit down with milliner, sculptor, and pescatarian Tonya Gross to understand her artful inspirations and current design concoctions.  In this feature, Tonya also discusses potential hat designs for famous Chicagoans and Jon Gosselin.

F: Do you remember the first hat you ever owned?  What did it look like?

T: My first hat was a vintage piece I found at a thrift store.  I saw it as a project, a blank canvas to inject some personal style.  It was a pillbox with netting.  I added a brooch and wore it over my Aquanet-superhold-unscented-Robert-Smith-inspired hair sculpture.  Thank you Molly Ringwald, Morrissey and Cabaret Voltaire.

F: What inspires your designs?  Any particular design of yours you like the most?

T: I tend to let the material dictate what it wants to be and then give it a little nudge.  Music or an old movie inspires the personality of each piece too.  I like to crank Yma Sumac when I am blocking a hat and old Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman films while hand sewing it.  It infuses the character of the hat…and the hat’s name.  Right now, I am working on a hat for a friend inspired by Myrna Loy’s character in the Thin Man movies.  It’s a chocolate brown felt with embellishments that include suede, a vintage bird wing and curled quills.

Inspiration to honor the integrity of couture sewing comes from the true couturiers like Chanel, Dior, Schiaparelli and Yves St Laurent.  Millinery heroes:  Raymond Hudd, Bes-Ben, Paulette, Ann Albrizio, Philip Treacy, Stephen Jones and my mentor, Eia Radosavljevic.

I think my most successful pieces are honest to the materials.  One of my favorites was a rolled banana leaf trilby.  Pure torture to stitch and block.  I took on the challenge of sewing living materials for my portfolio to get into art school.  It worked; then it dried and crumbled.  Back to the earth, as they say…

F: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from millinery school?

T: I attended a conceptual art school- not a millinery school- as a “developed adult”, shall we say.  I had many lives before deciding to go to art school which translated into a real earnestness to make the most of the resources while I had them. I connected with my instructors more than other students.  Fellow Gen X-ers, man.  You are my people.

My takeaways?  An unprecedented opportunity:  Total freedom to develop concepts and explore new materials.  I developed a deeper connection to ideas and materials, learned to trust myself and forged relationships with people I admire very much.

F: Can you describe a typical client of yours? Where do they wear these hats to?  It’s not very common that you see someone walking down the street with a fancy hat.

T: My typical client?  I design for fashion designers for the runway as well as a broad range of cancer patients, ladies who lunch, hipster boys, brides and nay-sayers who think their head is too big.  Custom millinery allows everyone- even those with larger beans- to indulge in head wear fantasies.

He or she has to be confident and have a sense of humor.  Confident because the reality is that Chicago is not London or Paris.  You stand out in a hat and people are going to look at you.  I like the risk takers.  The humor is in the details.

F: How did you end up designing hats?  What did you do prior to this?  What do you enjoy about the work that you do now?

T: Millinery is the perfect marriage of traditional method and art form that is open to modern interpretation through material usage, technology and environment.  I am turning 40 next week.  A late bloomer!  I rejoice in finally immersing all of my passion into one thing:  *My* business.  I always knew I wanted to own a business creating work out of a studio in or near my home.  I get inspiration at weird hours and like to squeeze the juice out of the day.

I like being a jack(ie) of all trades and taking on new challenges.  I am incorporating wood carving, sculpture, management, marketing and design into what I do.  All things I have picked up along the journey.  My business tagline is:  from hedge fund to head wear…hats for individuals who think outside the (hat) box…in a previous life, it was all left brain.  Now, life is a little more balanced.

F: Lets talk about imaginary hats for famous people – can you describe what hats you’d design for: Jennifer Hudson? Michelle Obama? Jon Gosselin?

Tonya's Black Hat Black Heart

Tonya's Black Hat Black Heart from her Spring 2010 collection. Photo By David Leslie Anthony

T: Dita Von Teese and Lady GaGa are more my aesthetic but I will play along!  Jennifer Hudson is lovely and see her wearing a traditional hat silhouette with broad brim and shorter crown.  But really, she needs a sexy fascinator to go with those eyes!  Michelle Obama?  I would love to make her a modern pillbox in a bold-colored leather in a not-so-Jackie-O sort of way.  I don’t know much about Jon Gosselin but first thought is an asshat and whatever that might look like.  Latex and baby powder.

My next collection will be dedicated to my group of friends, dubbed the Chicago 7.  Sipsters, the older, more worldly sisters of hipsters.  Bawdy and brilliant ladies, each and every one.  They are my inspiration and my family.  Each hat will be based on a personality.  Sure to be over the top.  Naughty and delicious.

F: How long have you lived in Chicago?  Have you ever thought about leaving?  Why?

T: I grew up in the wilds of northern Michigan and moved to Chicago about 14 years ago.  I label myself “urban crunchy”.  I love the outdoors- canoeing, climbing and camping- but enjoy the vitality of the city too.  I have always wanted to move west and learn to surf and find Moondoggie but Chicago has so much going for it:  Great live music, restaurants…a beautiful lake… dear friends.  Chicago is trying really hard to be fashion forward but we are in the Midwest and sadly, hats are about utility and less about fashion.  Problematic.

F: What are your favorite fashion boutiques in Chicago? How about secret source for affordable fashion?

T: I have a voracious appetite for thrifting so my haunts are off the grid.  I mix vintage pieces from Howard Brown and Salvation Army with the new from local designers carried by Wolfbait & b-Girls boutique in Logan Square and Habit in my hood.  Being in the fashion business, I get to meet some great clothing designers.  I try to buy locally as much as possible.

F: What neighborhood do you live in?  What are your favorite things to do around there?

T: I live in Ukranian Village a couple of miles west of Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago.  It’s about beer, coffee and chocolate (not necessarily in that order) in this hood.  The beer garden at Happy Village…the cigars, T & T’s and people watching at Matchbox…Atomix café for delightful joe…and Sweet Cakes (which used to be my loft space before it went retail!) for chocolate goodness and some wild memories.

F: Can you share your favorite restaurants with us and what you order from them?

I am a pescetarian and thankfully Chicago restaurateurs are good to us!  I would be a bad Chicagoan if I didn’t say how much I love our pizza options.  The harmony of perfect thin crust and sauce is at Pequod’s on Clybourn.  I think about falafel sandwiches at least once a day and have one of the best right around the corner from me at Chickpea on Chicago Ave.  Sentimental favorite is La Creperie on Clark Street for Crepe Suzette and coffee in the garden.  I lived in Japan and am always searching for good sushi too!  Sashimi onegaishimasu!  We have Matsushita on Thome on the north side for authentic Japanese dining, thank goodness.

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