Hat Couture: Meet the Canadian milliner head-hunted by aristocrats and commoners alike
David Dunkley was about to tell a secret, but not, he said, while a digital voice recorder was running and definitely not if it was going to be published. Disclosing his secret to the public would be tantamount to a mobster ratting out a mafia don, albeit with less grave consequences to Dunkley’s physical health, if not his professional standing. What can be said about Dunkley’s secret is that it concerns his profession/passion/life calling as a milliner. That is, a maker of high-end, haute couture, fabulous, feathery, often fascinator-adorned custom hats, fit to wear to a royal wedding or some other aristocratic European affair.
“It’s a kooky world,” Dunkley says, at his narrow, nondescript millinery shop in west end Toronto, which is home to a colourful array of more affordable (think: $300 and up) off-the-rack hats for the non-aristocrats, plus a white, fluffy, friendly Bijou lapdog, named Katy, that accompanies him to work each day.
Before getting hooked on hats, Dunkley worked for Toronto politician George Smitherman. Politics was his dream job until a night school course in hat making convinced him that he was pursuing the wrong dream. He then earned a diploma in hat making from a community college and, thereafter, wrote a letter to Rose Cory, the milliner to the Queen Mother — prior to the Queen Mum’s death — and asked if she would be his teacher. Cory replied by phone from her London studio. Her answer was “yes.”
Today, David Dunkley Fine Millinery serves clients across Canada, the northern U.S. and Europe, where things get secretive in Dunkley’s line of work. He has regular customers. He just can’t name them, particularly if they happen to be Duchess So-and-So or Lady This-and-That, unless they name him first, by appearing photographed in the British tabloids wearing one of his creations. To summarize: the big secret about being a fancy hat maker is that you are not allowed to gossip about the fancy people who wear your fancy hats — or else.
“Some of my best work is the work you are never going to see,” Dunkley says. “We were talking to a French countess last summer. She didn’t want us to know she was a countess, until she actually let slip something about her castle. There is the really glamorous side to this business, which is what people always talk about, but it is a very small part of my world.” Instead, “99 per cent of the work I do is for ordinary, great people.”
Ordinary Canadians typically own a winter hat (see, toque) and a summer hat, often a ball cap, manufactured in China, and sold at retail for about $30, about a tenth of the price of Dunkley’s cheapest custom hat. The most expensive hat he has made cost its owner $8,000. It featured an abundance of crystals and hand-painted flowers.
At his shop one day in September, Dunkley was hatless, sporting a blue millinery work apron, groovy dark-rimmed glasses that gave him an owlish look and mauve-coloured jeans. The 49-year-old craftsperson harbours zero animosity toward mass-produced ball caps, as they simply belong to the larger continuum of hats. They are to the modern age, Dunkley says, what the fedora was to the 1950s.
The downside of the ball cap is that it enables its wearers to “hide.” A milliner’s purpose is to make his clients stand out, say, by fashioning a ball cap out of tweed — and mink — instead of a cotton/polyester blend. “My mother-in-law, Carol Chown, used to get me furs by shaking them out of the closets of her old lady friends in Kingston,” Dunkley says, chuckling at the thought.
Other essential items in the milliner’s creative arsenal include rooster feathers, felt, straw, wire, crystals and wooden blocks shaped like human heads. Dunkley uses the blocks for stretching his hats into their desired form. Being a milliner is an intensely physical job, and producing something beautiful involves weeks of sweat and toil. But a hat, in its perfection, should look as though it was “touched by a light hand,” rather than manhandled to life. It is the standard every milliner strives for. Dunkley is among the few who can actually pull it off internationally and bank enough money to make hat making a full-time gig. (He drives a 20-year-old Volvo station wagon, sure, but his revenues are growing year over year.)
Hat making, of course, has long been a thing, though hats, aside from the ubiquitous ball cap, only became a mainstream, wear-one-to-your-best-friend’s-wedding thing in North America after the 2011 royal wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William. Post-nuptials, (some) people actually knew what a fascinator was. For those who don’t, a fascinator is traditionally defined as a woman’s small hat, to be worn at a formal event. Dunkley’s masterful small-business-person stroke was making hats for several Canadian broadcasters who covered the event. Fashion media maven Jeanne Beker plugged him on air. Overnight, a star was born. “Our shop was closed the day of the royal wedding,” he says. “When we re-opened on the Saturday, there was a lineup outside our door. We thought people were lining up for the bus. They cleaned us out in two hours.”
The world had gone crazy for hats. In the early days of his career, Dunkley welcomed every potential customer into his shop, an open door policy that set the conditions for “Bridezilla’s” appearance. “This woman would yell at us. She would yell at her mother. She would speak about her fiancé in the most derogatory terms,” he says. In short, she was a horrible person, but she taught the milliner a valuable professional lesson: never work with nasty people, but if you do, be sure to charge them a walloping premium for the pain and suffering they cause.
“We make pretty things here,” Dunkley says, with a shrug. “I make hats, by hand, and so there is no real reason to be upset about anything. This shop is a happy place.”