She trims hats with snips of nostalgia

October 31, 1990|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

LUXURIOUS JEWEL colors, enriched with shimmering ribbons, vintage buttons, Bakelite buckles, beaded work, diaphanous veils, lace, velvet, feathers and jaunty tassels, Kate Burch's hats invite women to find themselves: alluring, audacious and cool.

Through the metaphorical power of hats, Burch, as well, has found herself. She is a milliner with a whimsical flair, and an eye toward evergreen style. Burch embraces her calling with zeal: "There are a zillion, jillion different ways to make hats. I want to learn them all."

Burch's fall collection of one-of-a-kind hats debuts tomorrow at a "First Thursdays" reception in a Charles Street storefront.

Newly transplanted from Los Angeles, Burch, 34, has set up shop in her airy Mt. Washington home, furnished with family heirlooms, many inherited from a great grandmother who ran a boarding house in rural Texas.

Burch's studio is a former child's room, and pastel paper still covers the wall. Like so many abstract, art deco busts, Burch's rare collection of antique wood hat blocks cut through the room's cloying cuteness.

The blocks, found mainly in flea markets, are Burch's foundation for the early 20th century styles she favors. Some are futuristically outlandish, such as a flying saucer number, disturbingly weird and organic in its archetypal state. A plain, helmet-shaped piece is one of Burch's best used blocks. On that, she molds low-riding, small brimmed cloches synonymous with 1920s flappers.

It is the "simple and uninteresting ones I find the most useful," says Burch, who seeks to make hats "a normal person will wear." (A caveat is in order here: this is the same milliner who once created a hat that resembled an over-sized Hershey's Kiss.)

Burch mixes and matches brim and crown blocks to creat cloches, and other hats that a fashion historian might identify as mushroom, draped peach baskets, Peter Pan and tam hats.

Burch dampens the hoods of felt and straw she buys at millinery supply store in New York City, and drapes them over the wood blocks.

She sculpts the hoods, stretching, creasing, molding, tying until the hat she is searching for reveals itself. After it dries, Burch snips excess felt or straw, stitches the hat together, hems edges, and adds with needle and thread the ribbons, buttons, buckles and other trims that give her hats vintage distinction.

As her artistry has evolved, Burch has learned to release her instinct to control a hat and allow it to speak for itself. "That's when I got my first crumpled hat," Burch says. Inspired by an antique hat she bought long ago, she often crinkles her felt creations to look like they have spent a century genteelly crushed in a hat box, only to be rediscovered in their admirably worn and eccentrically beautiful state. Burch points to one richly creased felt hat that her husband calls her "sharpei" hat, because of its resemblance to the wrinkly, Asian dog.

Burch draws her credo from designer Issey Miyake, who told an ambitious devotee, "Show me your mistakes." Once, while blocking a hat, red dye from the block stained the felt. Instead of tossing it, Burch stitched a vintage kimono sleeve into a bright hat brim, and attached a great big red flower.

Since it is fall, Burch's current line is strictly felt of varying naps called wool, beaver and velour. But straw hats "are more fun to sculpt," she says.

Burch's obsession with hats has to do with her love for the past, and an instinct for creative recycling.

Born and bred in the Texas hill country outside of Austin, Burch speaks in that offbeat, intelligent way associated with protagonists of zany Southern novels. With her wide eyes, pretty round face and theatrical past, Burch could probably play one of those heroines in the movie version.

Instead, she chose hats. During and after a brief acting career in Los Angeles, Burch poured her energies into a vintage clothing business. Inspired by a friend who created a line of clothing that was quickly picked up by "all the top stores in LA", Burch decided to follow her muse.

She took a hat making workshop and convinced a local milliner that she would make a fine apprentice, willing and able to work weekends, and to do necessary scut work. During this period, Burch was consumed by millinery minutiae. Once, in a dream, a hat with a straw brim engulfed in clouds appeared to her. Awake, Burch figured out how to make it with net and tulle. "It became an all-encompassing thing," she says of her hat mania.

One of the most important lessons Burch learned during her apprenticeship was that as a milliner, "You don't have to do things like anybody else." Making hats, she realized, is a user-friendly craft that requires basic skills but invites improvisation. A good eye, and sure sense for finding materials are also key.

Baltimore and its environs offers a rich mine of trimmings, blossoms and bric-a-brac, unlike Los Angeles where vintage materials were scarce and pricey. "The entire East Coast is my oyster," Burch says happily.

In her studio, Burch tenderly takes her hats from tissue-paper nests nestled in boxes. She and two friends ponder the feminine mystique of hats and model her concoctions before the bathroom mirror.

One wide-brimmed black hat is draped with a gorgeous antique pink and black veil, discovered in Fells Point, and kissed with two big pink blossoms. In turn, the women try it on. To each, the hat lends an air of sultry mystery. With the veil pulled down, the transformation from 30-something pretty to ageless beauty is complete.

The hat reception takes place tomorrow from 5 until 9 p.m. at 405 N. Charles St. Burch's hats range in price from $75 to $175. For more information, call 664-4220.

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