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Heady feelings about the shape of things to come

PHILIP TREACY TALKS TO SUSAN THOMAS. Two teachers dramatically influenced my career. One was Sheilagh Brown who taught me design at the Royal College of Art when I was doing my MA and the other was Shirley Hex who taught me everything about making hats.

It was Sheilagh Brown who introduced me to John Galliano, the fashion designer, and he said "There is this lady called Shirley Hex who makes my hats for me. Maybe you could do some and she could do some."

The first evening I went to Shirley's house and suddenly it was four in the morning. There are some people who can engage you in interesting conversation and still get the work done.

And it was Sheilagh Brown who, when I asked her "Should I do fashion or should I do hats?" said "Make hats!" They were just thinking of setting up a millinery course and I was the guinea pig. So I asked if they'd have Shirley come and teach me. And she came one day a week for six months and it was fantastic.

I've come across many, very intelligent teachers but few with real talent for passing on their knowledge.

Sheilagh Brown was one of those people who you feel knows all the answers. She was fantastic. Really quiet. I find quiet power much more interesting than heavy power. If she had told me to jump out of the window I'd have done it. When you came up with an idea she'd never say "I don't like the idea of that" she'd say "Right. Do It. Make it fantastic".

But Shirley makes you excited about the work. She explains every aspect of it. She's totally obsessed by it and she could see that I was. And she's such fun. She's like your own mother. She's so kind and she's so natural and honest.

Now this is a perfect example of what Shirley's like. When I go to the shows in Paris I take an assistant, and one time I took Shirley. In the course of the proceedings all the people who usually hang about on that scene come by and say "hello".

And Kate Moss the supermodel came by. She sat down and lit a cigarette and said "What's new?" And Shirley was looking at her very thoughtfully and she said "Are you doing work experience luv?" and Kate, very politely, said no, she wasn't.

And when she left I said "That was Kate Moss, Shirley!" but she had no idea who she was. And I introduced her to Naomi Campbell and lots of the others and she just loved it all.

She taught me at college and she taught me when I was starting the business. I still have all the shapes that I made with her. They were some of the best I've ever made. Because I was the only student on the millinery course we just sat together chit-chatting about what the next hat was going to be and how to go about it and we'd both get excited at the same time.

There was one time when Shirley was looking after a shop in Stoke Newington for a friend who had gone to the Philippines. She was selling their greetings cards. And for about a month of Saturdays I'd go to the shop and we'd hand-roll pale blue, organdie petals all day long.

I was trying to get the hand of hand-rolling organdie. It's not something anyone can teach you. You just keep doing it and suddenly it clicks. We spent a month because I needed something like 2,000 petals and Shirley said, "OK I'll do them with you if you come and hang out in the shop with me."

So we'd sit behind the counter, chit-chatting and hand-rolling. I can still see the colour - a light, 17th century French blue.

I spent many, many years at college. Seven in all, though it felt like hundreds. But it has been of use. And now I get to do the most exciting thing in the world for me - making beautiful hats. I don't think of them as art, that would be pretentious, but I do try to make beautiful hats - that's one based on an opium den . . . smoke blowing in the wind. And I'm still in touch with Shirley and she still knows more than anyone else.

Philip Treacy, hatter, has a shop at 69 Elizabeth Street, London SW1, and collections in various department stores. He also does a special collection for Debenhams.

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