The journey toward a career in fashion is often circuitous and full of false starts. For some, however, it’s simple. Take, for instance, Priscilla Royer, a designer-turned-milliner who found her métier in the most obvious place: her mother’s closet. “I’d always hide in there and stay close to a black velvet dress. It was really, really soft and I remember thinking, ‘Can this beautiful thing really exist?’”
While she was growing up in rural France, fashion and self-expression were always important to Royer, who would frequently rebel against being dressed identically to her three sisters. “I tried to find different ways to personalize the look a little,” she says. “I always added a small scarf around my waist, a piece of jewellery, or different hairband. I played with everything at a very early stage.” Later, she would go on to study fashion design at the prestigious Central Saint Martins University, a school known for such star-studded alumni as Phoebe Philo, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen.
When I meet her at the top of a hill in Hyères, France, a small, picturesque town that plays host to the annual International Festival of Fashion, Photography, and Accessories, she’s effortlessly chic in a navy t-shirt, mid-length kilt, and Chelsea boots. “My style is spontaneous,” she tells me. “I only take five minutes to get dressed in the morning.” Royer is in town as a judge in the festival’s accessories competition, which seems fitting given that she is in a class of her own at the helm of Maison Michel, a storied Parisian millinery now owned by Chanel. At 34, she is a rare millennial in a largely antique trade.
Hats used to be a social code, but now it’s about inserting more freedom and creativity in a way that you actually discover the hat as a style accessory, rather than a signifier,” she says. To that end, the house, which had been privately producing styles for prestigious brands since 1936, began designing its own eponymous line in 2006. Since she joined the company in 2015, Royer’s hats have become just the ticket for a thoroughly modern expression of style, whether through a myriad of wide-brimmed straw fedoras or the signature felt Jamie cap, which features cleverly moulded cat ears. Each style is the result of careful crafting, utilizing the atelier’s treasure trove of over three 3,000 wooden moulds.
“Every year, there’s about 10 new wooden shapes, because we have an archive that’s big enough to make combinations,” she says. The archive is so deep, in fact, that there is only one person in the workshop who can recall each style by name. “He’s been with the company for 30 years, and he’ll be able to tell you, for instance, that reference 2254 is from 1964!”
As Royer walks me through the array of moulds dating back to Maison Michel’s inception, she stops at a particularly complex shape which is split in three. “It’s very experimental,” she says. “I’ve been working a lot on the flexibility of the material—to have a hat you can shove in your bag and that fits into your daily lifestyle.” Back at the workshop, felt is placed atop the mould, heated, shaped, and cooled before it is re-stitched. Another, an iconic Chanel shape, requires three hours of work before it can be dried.
Each season, Royer oscillates between creating pieces for the many luxury houses Maison Michel manufactures for and dreaming up her own designs. For fall, she went 1950s gangster, referencing Al Capone’s signature fedora as a starting point. For spring, she ventured off the deep end into feminine territory. “Inspiration-wise, it’s an animal process, really,” she says. “I have to be in my bubble.”