Kentucky Derby hats are a tradition as old as the race itself. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. organized the race in 1875 based on the Epsom Derby, and Kentucky ladies looked to their British counterparts for fashion inspiration, including the formal hats of the day’s fashion. Over a century later, the tradition remains.
Kate Welsh and Rachel Bell. Image via the Hat Girls
The Hat Girls, the Official Hat Designers of the Kentucky Derby Festival, put a hip couture spin on the traditional Kentucky Derby hat. The Hat Girls’ creations are stunning and unique and often unpredictable, but what can you expect from a duo who cite Lady GaGa as an inspiration and who debate the merits of the color pink? I caught up with the Hat Girls – Louisville natives Rachel Bell and Kate Welsh – to talk about their design inspirations and the best looks for Kentucky Derby 142.
Heather C. Watson: How did The Hat Girls get started?
Rachel Bell: We started off making hats for ourselves, and people liked them. We incorporated as a business in 2013 and here we are.
Kate Welsh: 60% of our business is custom work, which wasn’t in our original business plan. We find that, typically, a lady wants to pick out her clothes around the hat. Others want a custom design made from dresses they’ve already picked out.
RB: And, then we have the customers who have an eye for design, and they want us to be their hands.
HCW: So, it’s a lot of interaction with the customer, and a lot of customization?
KW: A lot of times, we get into a text chain with the customer, and we give them ideas. This year, we’ve gotten really good at reading the customers to see what they want and what will flatter them. When we don’t have to work around a strict vision, those hats usually turn out the best.
HCW: How long does it take to make a Hat Girls hat?
RB: It depends on the day and the hat. It can be anywhere from one hour to thirty hours, depending on the level of customization. If we’re sewing on individual beads or sequins, it can take a while. But, on a good day, each of us can make two to three hats.
HCW: I always feel so bad for those women you see at the track who chose a hat that’s too big and drooping in her eyes. You know they’re going to have Facebook profile pictures that completely block their faces.
KW: And they’re miserable at the Derby because they couldn’t see the race. We’re very honest with customers about what works for them. People try the hats on, and they don’t always realize that an adjustable hat brim only helps them so much.
RB: You go into a department store, and you only see the pretty hat, not how it’s going to work for you.
KW: As designers, we try to limit how many feathers or sequins we add to the hat so that it’s not sagging down into the customer’s face.
RB: But, at the same time, the hat usually is the focal point of the outfit.
KW: And, a lot of people go for the goofy, big hat look!
Hat Girl Kate demonstrates a custom look for Derby 142
HCW: What trends are you seeing for the 2016 Kentucky Derby season?
KW: People ask us all the time “Are fascinators still in style?” Yes! Of course they are; look at the styles in Europe! We love fascinators for three reasons: your face isn’t shadowed when you wear one, you look great, and a fascinator is light and comfortable to wear.
RB: We always tell people who are scared to try a fascinator, “Put it on the side where your hair parts.” Fascinators don’t always sell as well in retail stores because people don’t always know how to wear them. We put photos of a lot of our fascinators on social media so that people know how to wear them.
KW: Also, about 90% of our fascinators are adjustable, to accommodate deeper partlines.
HCW: What colors do you predict for Kentucky Derby 142?
RB: People want a lot of navy.
KW: And light blue!
HCW: Right, fitting in with the Pantone Color of the Year, serenity?
RB: Absolutely. We overstocked rose quartz, the other Pantone Color of the Year for 2016, but we just aren’t seeing people choose it.
KW: We do always know to have a lot of pink; it’s like black and white. So classic, and so feminine. Plus, we need a lot of pink for Oaks hats.
RB: I’m the wrong one to ask; I hate pink. It’s just not my thing.
HCW: What makes a hat a Hat Girls hat?
KW: At first, we only wanted to do funky, Lady GaGa types of hats. We’ve had to tone that down over time, sticking to our aesthetic, but knowing what sells. We’re both such perfectionists. We know how we want things to be. For us, we work better with a higher-end, custom vibe.
RB: Each hat is a work of art!