In Conversation with — Leah Chalfen

Leah Chalfen is the Leah in Leah C. Couture Millinery, New York. Her headpieces and hats are known for their dramatic grandeur that harks back to an earlier era of headgear; Bird of Paradise fantasies of feathers and veil or nifty little numbers that perch atop the head worthy of a feisty performance by Katherine Hepburn opposite Cary Grant in some great Preston Sturgess moment of urbane wit. Leah C.’s hats bring a glamour and clamour back into contemporary lifestyles all too often stripped bare of poise and dénouement.

Leah Chalfen

Leah Chalfen

When one looks at Leah C.’s collections, it’s easy to see exactly why stylists and glamourous ladies love her work. It’s witty, stylish and a little outré, exactly what any intelligent post-modern woman would want at the right moments in her life. But, it is the craft itself, the classical references and techniques that probably account for Leah C. creations ending up on the heads of top models in leading fashion magazines and photographed by some of the greats: Irving Penn, Karl Lagerfeld, Francois Nars, Steven Meisel and Ellen von Unworth to name but a few.

A bit of attention to Leah Chalfen’s experience and all becomes clear. No doubt, that definitive craft is the outcome of two years of “graduate study” under master milliner Patricia Underwood and a training with the head milliner of the Metropolitan Opera’s costume department in addition to studying at New York City’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. And maybe even a certain European flair rubbed off on Leah during the three years she spent living and working in Italy and Spain after completing her initial studies in foreign languages and culture at Temple University.

Although the revival of the 1980’s brought a certain optimism to the ancient craft of millinery that had been in serious decline in the preceding two decades, the design of hats remains a special and specialised discipline, an interesting fashion aside to how most of us now live our lives. Fortunately for Leah Chalfen, Leah C. Couture Millinery looks well on its way to ending up in that exclusive group of ‘mad hatters’ that demand ongoing attention.

Other Edition posed a few questions to Leah Chalfen…

KP: What would you say is your design philosophy? What are you trying to do with your headgear?

LC: I consider myself a colorist and because I do a daily visual study of my field, I approach my designing in somewhat of an intellectual manner. There is a lot of intellectual fashion going on these days, love it!

Also I try to create pieces that are flattering to the face and the shape of the head. By offering a wide variety of designs, the individual has a choice of hat, therefore really relaying a sense of self-expression of the wearer.

KP: A bit of a prosaic question, I guess, but isn’t setting up a millinery business fairly high-risk? What would be your advice to any aspirant hat designers hoping to set up a business in an expensive city such as NYC, London or Paris?

LC: One must have talent and one must be very resourceful, traits an entrepreneur should possess. These days you can set up a website in a day but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay your training dues or earn the credentials needed to prove your vision’s viability. Write a studied business plan and get advice from a business person!

On the creative side; beyond the designing and invention process one must have a trained eye and a high skill level of sewing to execute quality well made products by hand or machine depending on your product line.

KP: How does a collection –or even an individual piece- take form? Where does inspiration come from for you? What’s the process?

LC: Well, because I use industry specific materials, the materials themselves tell me what to do with them. The routes of change in millinery, historically, provide an unending source of inspiration. The trick is, interpreting these studies to fit today’s women and lifestyle.

Inspiration: Shapes, silhouettes, people’s innate style, color, nature, New York…Process: you take a lot in and then its how you throw it back out there as an artist.

KP: Something that I find interesting is how much European stylists and fashion editors love your work. Not that they shouldn’t, but it seems almost disproportionate for an American designer almost entirely based in New York. Is there some secret we should know about?

LC: Yes, I wish that Anna (Wintour) liked hats more! At any rate I am honored that European editors embrace my design sensibility and include my work on their creative and clever pages. I believe that because the worldwide web lets the consumer purchase anything they see in the magazines from anywhere in the world, the potential to feature, outside particular regional brands, has expanded. Just a theory but European editors and publishers could potentially have more artistic freedom in their layouts as American publications are under pressure to reach certain advertising numbers. As we know, Fashion is very much a business and they must appeal to a broad range of women, as America is a huge national audience.

KP: Obviously, you worked with some legends in the field of millinery. But I wonder who else you see as influential for your own development?

LC: Balenciaga and the iconographic Dior elegance of evenings in the 50’s, my parents, due to the fact that my mom is Danish and my dad is an anthropologist, this spurned lots of exposure to cultural institutions growing up and also my European years…..

KP: Your list of clients and press credits reads like a who’s who of high-end fashion. But I wonder who is the person who you feel most proud to have had your work atop his or her head? Are you aloud to tell us?

LC: I am most proud of having one of my dramatic evening pieces photographed a while back by the legendary Irving Penn for American Vogue. He was such an influence on me growing up looking at my father’s American Photographer issues that often featured his work from the early glamourous days through his artistic cycles.

I was also totally thrilled the other day when I received a call from Paris via Harper’s Bazaar saying Karl Lagerfeld and Lady Amanda Harlech were freaking over my hats on set!

KP: Anything new and interesting we should keep an eye out for?

LC: Birds! Birds are multiplying in the Leah C. Aviary…

One of Leah Chalfen's creations for Leah C. Couture Millinery, New York

One of Leah Chalfen's creations for Leah C. Couture Millinery, New York AW10 collection.Photo: M K Semos