I arrive in Guiseley with my head stuck in my phone and begin to drift down Bradford Road. Asking Google Maps to elevate me to luxurious grandeur, it instead dumps me outside a nondescript door. I immediately assume I am at the wrong property; this doesn’t seem like a place where the rich and famous would come to be fitted with a hat for a special occasion.
I enter and apologise to my phone. An Aladdin’s Cave of breathtaking hat designs, every available space on the walls and floor adorned with a dazzling array of headpieces of every imaginable colour and shape represented in this boggling cornucopia. Like walking into a gigantic kaleidoscope.
Adele is the larger-than-life character responsible for this oddball opulence, with her business Eleda Hats. Having been in the industry for 25 years, she has produced thousands of hats, and people flock from all over the globe to be fitted with one of her bespoke, handmade designs. “I’ve done some really crazy pieces in my time,” she explains. “I’ve done a Solar System, an Eiffel Tower, the Millennium Dome (that had multi-coloured lights), fruit bowls, fish bowls, all sorts. An ale company commissioned me to make a huge beer barrel hat with barley and hops protruding from the top once, and I did one for the Chelsea Flower show that was a massive tent!”
Working on the assumption that your average person wouldn’t wake up one morning and decide that they want to walk around with a solar system attached to their cranium, I ask how someone gets to that point.
“Sometimes a customer will decide they want a hat that’s the wrong style or shape for them. Slowly we’ll say ‘try this one on’ or ‘have a little go with this’ and people are often surprised with what they end up leaving with!”
“Most ladies will come in here with an outfit but no idea what hat they want. They’ll get changed and we go through a process of matching up the shape. We’ll end up with four or five hats in the running that we think will look good, then we’ll take photographs of the client wearing it for them and dye it to match the outfit. The decision then usually comes down to price.”
This clearly takes an artistic vision and unique ability. What is the creative process that results in what, to my untrained and unfashioned eye, invariably looks like a strutting peacock morphed into hat form? “It just evolves. Sometimes I might look at something, like this model fish here for instance, and think ‘that would look great with some blue feathers’. I rarely end up with what I thought I was going to. I never draw a hat before I make it,” she chuckles.
So who buys these fantastical headpieces that can cost well over a thousand pounds? “My clients are generally very private, so I can’t say much,” she tells me whilst inspecting one of her creations that makes up the blizzard of headgear stuffed into every orifice of her tiny workshop. “We make hats for all sorts of people and occasions: Royal Ascot, Dubai Races and high-profile weddings. Things like that. I’ve made hats for Princess Diana, Joan Collins – who I accidently bumped into nearly knocking her to the ground – and plenty more people who I can’t name on the record.” Repeated attempts to encourage Adele to allow me to publish the names of her current famous clients prove futile.
As a tsunami of cheap knock-offs flood the UK market, I wonder how the modern world treats the age-old profession of millinery, with its reams of tradition firmly steeped in British history. “At race meetings, they sometimes let the mass-produced hats win some of the competitions,” admits Adele. “I don’t want to win all the competitions but it kills me to see a Chinese import win one.”
Despite this, Adele and many other creative-makers using traditional techniques continue to thrive as the public demand better and the talent wins out. “I did once send 50 designs off to China to get reproduced, but they could only make 20 of them,” says Adele. “They couldn’t copy them, they said they were too complex.” Passion, skill and craft, it proves, can never be replicated.