An Interview with Milliner Wendy Mead

Posted on August 16, 2011

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This piece was commissioned in 2009 for a book on millinery that ultimately didn’t end up being published. The brief asked for a tone “half way between magazine and lifestyle book. That is, light-ish but not too cheesy/chatty.” I forgot I’d written it. 

Feather wreath, 2009 collection. Photo: Ben Weinstein.

Wendy Mead is something of an anachronism. Online, it’s almost as if she doesn’t exist: no Wikipedia page, no Facebook or Twitter account; and a Google search returns mostly out-of-date Yellow Pages results. A request for details of her hats is met with a fax. She smokes throughout our interview. In her own words, she feels as if she’s “living in the 16th century”.

Well, not quite. But it is Wendy’s adherence to what some might call old-school values that makes her stand out, that marks her as an artist, not just a milliner. It comes at a price, however. Like many artists, Wendy is highly self-critical and prone to depression. “Honestly I don’t think I’ll be doing millinery when I come back in my next life,” she says. “Next life I think I’ll be wiser and I won’t do it.”

But in this life, she wouldn’t be doing anything else. And what she is doing – making haute couture hats for the fashionable elite – she’s been doing for over 40 years. After leaving school at 17, Wendy went to Paris, where she spent five years apprenticed to Madame Paulette, one of France’s leading milliners. Upon returning to Australia, she continued her studies with Thomas Harrison, then Melbourne’s best-known milliner. Both Paulette and Harrison have since been commemorated in museums and galleries.

It was Harrison who helped set Wendy up in her first salon, and with his patronage she quickly gained clients who were “the cream, the establishment”: baronesses, celebrities, the rich, the famous. Important, wealthy people offered to set her up with her own salon in Paris. She declined, choosing instead to stay in Australia, marry and raise a family.

“I persecute myself because I’m so self-critical. The only way I’m going to be happy is when I die!”

Europe looms large in her work and her life, however. She follows the catwalks in Europe for inspiration, she has many European clients and she gets all her materials – from leather and fur to suede, pure silk velvets and chiffon – imported from Europe. “I won’t touch the cheap shit made in Asia.”

Oversize paribuntal straw beret, 2009 collection. Photo: Ben Weinstein.

Naturally, she’s as discerning with her craft as she is with her materials. It takes a week just to design a pattern. She makes everything by hand. Each hat is a work of art. Her clients have compared her to Picasso: misunderstood but visionary. She calls it the agony and the ecstasy. “I persecute myself because I’m so self-critical. The only way I’m going to be happy is when I die!”

An exaggeration, yes. But it’s easy to suspect that this self-created drama – she thinks she’d want to commit suicide if she was “bland” while acknowledging that “bland people” are happy – is also what drives her. She admits that it’s “insanity” but notes that it’s what keeps her going. “Otherwise I can’t see a point in life.”

She’s not joking. Wendy barely ever stops. In her twenties, she frequently worked until 4am; in her thirties, when she had two small daughters, she was still averaging about nine hours sleep a week, she says, especially at Melbourne Cup time. She’s no less driven nowadays. Full of nervous energy she speaks fast, continues working throughout our conversation, smokes a lot, and notes how much she enjoys being around younger people as it helps her to stay youthful.

And staying youthful – at least in outlook – is necessary in the fashion business. It also helps to have taste, something Wendy is adamant most people lack. She is as passionate about this as she is about everything else, emphasising that Madame Paulette taught her not to rely on trimmings, that making a good hat is all in the chic line, shape, form and cut, as well as in the execution. “Today it’s all over-the-top trimmings. What are they camouflaging?”

The lack of taste that Wendy sees as prevalent these days shocks and appals her. She claims she nearly vomited while looking at some mass-made hats for the spring racing carnival. “I thought: oh my god! This is heart wrenching. Are they actually asking that money for that?’ It’s distressing, horrible. I hate it.”

So what makes a good hat? Madame Paulette, who designed hats for couturiers including Chanel, passed onto her protégé a philosophy similar to Chanel’s. “You don’t create whimsy, stupid things,” Wendy explains. “That’s not understanding the human head. Like Chanel said, you look at yourself before you walk out the door and you take one thing off. You don’t add. And that’s how I am.”

Small chic turban with folded & draped ice-pink French silk organza, 2009 collection. Photo: Ben Weinstein.

That’s not to say a Wendy Mead hat is plain; far from it. She admits to being very dramatic – something that’s clearly not limited to her creations – but also notes that her work is like engineering. “Mathematically, I like everything to be correct. You have to understand step one before you go to steps two, three, four; every step along the way has to be exact. If you don’t get the foundations right all the decorative things at the top crumble.”

And given the passion, the drama, the self-criticism involved with each hat, can she ever be truly happy with them? “I get to a certain stage when I know it’s beautiful and the client is happy with it, then I’m happy. But until that stage I’m working through it. I’m not happy. I live through it. It’s like a story. Each hat is a creation.”

Wendy Mead’s studio is located at 17 Tivoli Road South Yarra, Victoria 3141.

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