Ashley Lloyd: A Milliner in a Million


Ashley Lloyd makes hats, not accessories. She insists, “I would never refer to myself as an accessories designer, even though I guess that’s technically what a milliner is.” Her rationale is simple: “I like that my hats can be the primary focus, that they can be on the same plane as the garment. They could be secondary, but I really don’t think I’ve ever seen them styled in that way.” Understandably so. Constructed of boar tusks, antlers, preserved flowers, and other natural curiosities, her pieces aren’t quite quiet enough to function as an afterthought or anything auxiliary to an overall look. They command too much attention to their grotesque brand of beauty.

Lloyd, who designs out of a small studio in Sunnyside, Queens, has had a big year. Early in 2012, Annie Leibovitz photographed Lady Gaga wearing a piece of hers for Vanity Fair, and shortly thereafter, Kate Moss appeared in W shot by Steven Klein, styled by Edward Enninful, and adorned by multiple Ashley Lloyd headdresses. After a string of appearances in the Chinese, German and Taiwanese editions of Vogue, she recently collaborated on a series of dark, arresting images for Interview with photographer Van Sarki. Enchanted by her and her craft, we caught up with Lloyd as she set back to work in her studio on a warm summer weekday.

ZACK ETHEART: How did you get interested in millinery? That’s sort of a niche craft.

ASHLEY LLOYD: I’ve always known that I’ve been interested in ornaments and fashion from when I was 10 years old. I stumbled upon an internship off Craigslist with a milliner in New York one summer before I graduated, and I mean, I didn’t realize it was a possibility for me. I’d always been fascinated with it. Once I learned the traditional art of millinery from her, I went back to school and applied it to my art and made it a part of my practice as an artist.

ETHEART: Would you say you had any reliable sources of inspiration that you return to again and again?

LLOYD: History—I’m really inspired by history. I go to the Met frequently, and the Natural History Museum. I’m really inspired by the Chinese kingfisher crowns right now. The New Guinea tribal art at the Met I really love. Everything. My materials also affect my work a lot. I kind of have an idea of what I’m looking for when I’m researching and collecting for my pieces, and from the materials my idea expands, just from where my mind goes as I’m searching for those materials and as I’m sourcing them.

ETHEART: What have been some of your favorite materials to work with?

LLOYD: My dad killed this rattlesnake—I don’t even know when he killed it, but it had been sitting in his house for ages—and back when I was in college and I was working on pieces, I knew that he had all of this stuff that he had hunted because I grew up hunting and fishing with him. I had asked him to send me anything that would be considered bizarre or that would possibly frighten me. So he sent me this rattlesnake skin. [laughs] It actually smelled kind of gross at first. I was just really freaked out—it still had the rattler attached, it still had the bullet hole where he had shot it.

ETHEART: How long does it take on average to find all of these rare materials and create one of your hats?

LLOYD: There’s really not an average hat, because all of them are one-of-a-kind pieces. It can take anywhere from any an entire day—I would say 12 hours—to a matter of weeks. Some of the smallest hats have been the most labor-intensive that I’ve ever created.

ETHEART: And do you do it all alone?

LLOYD: Yes, one-woman operation, completely solo. I’ve had a number of individuals contact me about internship opportunities, but it’s just not something that I’m really prepared to do right now. I mean, of course it would be lovely to have somebody clean my studio and run errands for me and drop off hats. [laughs] But right now I work so intuitively, and I just love a quiet space.

ETHEART: What’ve been some of your proudest moments as a milliner?

LLOYD: Lady Gaga was a huge deal. That was a shock. Kate Moss was the next big break. Both of those together felt so surreal. My dad might not have known who Lady Gaga was, but he definitely knows who Kate Moss is. [laughs] And it wasn’t just Kate Moss—it was Steven Klein, it was Edward Enninful. The pieces my work was paired with and all of the talent, it was overwhelming. It was really frightening in a way, because I knew that with success there was more at stake. Fighting that pressure and keeping my mind grounded, it’s hard. It’s exciting, but it’s unique.

ETHEART: Tell me about the thought behind your series for Interview.

LLOYD: There was a rawness that we wanted to convey that he [Van] thought my work had. When you take away the styling and take away the hair and take away all of the unnecessary parts, it changed things quite a bit. The photos are unbelievable.

ETHEART: Do you ever find yourself getting protective of your pieces and the way they’re styled?

LLOYD: I am really picky about who I work with more than how they style my pieces, because if I’m working with someone that is talented and has their own voice, I feel like I can automatically trust that person. Luckily, I’ve never had anyone I’ve worked with consider my hats secondary to the garments. It’s just as important for me to loan my hats as it is for them to have a specific garment from a specific designer. So for me, it’s all been looked at as one big vision that I’m helping create. And I love having that, and I am so fortunate to get to work with the most talented people in the industry.

ETHEART: Do you think there’s such a thing as a “hat person?”

LLOYD: [laughs] The answer to that question is yes and no. Anyone can wear a hat, but you have to have a certain confidence to pull off the kind of hat that I create. I think more than most hat makers, my hats are not for the faint of heart. I think it really depends on whether you’re open to letting a headdress transform you. It really does. All eyes are on you, because people don’t wear hats enough—outside of the normal fedoras or beanies that you see everywhere, but everyone blends in with those. When I’ve worn them out, I’ve gotten everything from “Are you the bride?” to “Are you going to a funeral?” I’ve been chased around Coney Island and called Mary Poppins. Really, I can’t even believe that that’s happened. You just have to have the right attitude when you do it, and most people just keep telling themselves they don’t look good in them, and that’s just bullshit. That drives me crazy.