There are certain traits that are all too often overlooked when it comes to matters of business. Traits that don't spring to mind when you think of money and success. Because, we've been lead to believe; success can be achieved more readily at the expense of others. Where there is a winner, there must be a loser. Win at all costs. It's a competitive market. Sure. However; honesty, respect, integrity and hard work have long been the key traits that make up not only the successful, but the good. Those few and far between that you actually WANT to work with, and equally, want to see do well.
I first met Susan Millard in an office environment that characterised none of the aforementioned traits. It might have been this lack of surrounding inspiration that allowed me to forge a distinct and genuine friendship with Susan, I simply don't know, but I do know that her story is a unique one. One that's lead to her new start and one that will surely surface amongst her new business and her beautiful designs.
Susan has a way of speaking poetically, everything is to be understood and appreciated. So it's with little wonder her many years of life in fashion PR, has, amongst many other things, amounted to a comprehensive list of colleagues just like myself who are on call to personally vouch for her character, and natural ability.
There are no bent strings or falsettos to be found. There is no clout, no mouth - and no empty promises. What you see is what you get. Warmth, light and a good amount of fine food and quality wine.
In an industry that draws you in and then swallows you whole, and where everything was meant to be done yesterday, I took time out with Susan, away from the phone, right by the fireplace, in a corner of her modest London home and had a tour of what's making those year's of knowledge and passion once again resurface - and hopefully remain....
Me: Firstly, congratulations on launching your new site Hats by Betty Noire
Susan: Thank you!
Me: When did the idea turn from dream to reality?
Susan: The first steps to making my millinery venture a reality were taken towards the end of 2013 and the website is just up and running so it is still a process to some extent - but I wanted to get everything exactly right and rushing anything was not really on the agenda.
Me: Why millinery - has it always been an interest?
Susan: Absolutely - I studied fashion design some 30 years ago and hats have always been a great passion - I had a fabulous aunt who was known for her hats and I think she was a major inspiration. I have collected vintage hats for many years and I have a particular fondness for the styles of the 1930s and 40s when a hat was a much more essential element to any look.
Q. Where do you start with something like this. I mean, did you have the whole picture visualised or is it a 'lets go one step at a time' and see what happens kind of thing?
Whilst I had a clear vision and what I wanted to create in terms of a brand identity and style, the actual realisation of that has been a step at a time and has evolved gradually.
Q. You obviously have so many great industry contacts and friends within the fashion business. How important has that been for launching?
Very! From showing a few trusted fashion editor friends my first samples and being given their encouragement to pursue my ideas further, to knowing I would have the contacts to help me promote those ideas once they became a reality. I probably would not have had the confidence to move ahead with my plans had it not been for the support of those trusted and knowledgeable contacts.
Q. You make no secret of the fact that technology isn't your fortay. How difficult/easy has it been to communicate your aesthetics online to achieve the kind of branding wish for yourself?
I have been very fortunate in having some fabulous and generous friends who have helped realise my ideas and make them work in a practical way. The fact that the site was developed by people who know me well meant they had an understanding of me and my style and taste and could translate my vision very effectively. One of the most reassuring things has been the feedback now the site is live - so many people have said it is very much a reflection of me.
Q. Do you design with yourself in mind or your customer in mind?
Both! I have very distinctive taste and my hats definitely have a nod to vintage style - but being a bespoke milliner means I have to take note of what my customers want and their own style and taste. Hopefully what emerges is a melding of the two.
Q. Who is your ideal customer?
In essence my ideal customer would be a woman with a strong sense of her own style and the confidence to go with that and not be swayed by the fads of fleeting fashion.
Q. If you could make a hat for anyone, who would it be and where would they wear it?
Helena Bonham Carter - I love that she dresses for herself and she does seem to like a hat! Wherever she wore any hat I had made I would be delighted!
Q. Your hats are vintage inspired. Do you have a favourite period?
Yes - the period between the wars and immediately after - but particularly the 30s - such elegance! I love watching old movies for inspiration - from Fred and Ginger in the RKO years to some of those great film noir classics.
Q. What keeps you inspired?
So many things - books, classic movies, paintings, photographs, textiles, flowers - I love to go to exhibitions - next on the list is the Matisse cut outs at the Tate Modern in London. The Pearls exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum earlier this year was incredibly inspirational. You never know where the next idea can come from and I am always looking!
Q. Where do you feel most yourself?
At home in London - it is such a vibrant and exciting city and I never tire of it. My flat is such a strong reflection of me too - I read a great quote recently which said that your home should be like a moodboard of who you are and the life you have had - I think mine qualifies.
Q. I know you've faced some heartbreaking challenges through your life - both personally, and professionally. What's the main thing you've learnt from them?
That is a tough question to answer but I think the main thing is just to keep going and try to focus on the positive things - even when it is hard to find them. Everyone experiences difficulties and challenges in their life, we are none of us exempt and it is not what happens to us but how we approach those things which defines us. I believe in trying to approach any situation with as much grace and style as possible.
Q. What gives you strength?
My friends and family - the people I love!
Q. Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
I used to sing in a jazz club occasionally some years ago and a personal project is to learn to play the ukelele - I have a beautiful shiny black one which was a gift and is ready and waiting!
Q. Are you interested in collaborations? if so, with who?
I haven't really given this much thought but, if I did consider it, it would have to be something where I felt there was a very real brand affinity.
Q. Most challenging thing about your business so far?
Without any doubt the technical challenges of having a website and what that involves - they are a constant which I don't see changing!
Q. Most rewarding thing about your business so far?
Seeing the delight of someone having and wearing a hat which makes them look good and feel special. That and a BAFTA award winning costume designer telling my hats are 'beautiful and witty' - given she designed for some of what I think have been the most stylish period TV programmes I can think of no higher praise!
Q. If you could host a mad-hatters tea party with 10 guests, dead or alive - who would be invited and where would you have it?
It would have to be either at Claridges because it is so beautiful and they do a delicious tea, or at the most fabulous Art Deco hotel, Burgh Island in Devon which I visited some years ago.
Guests is a very tricky one - after much thought I have come up with the following list - the deceased on the proviso they would all be at their best and in their prime!
Helena Bonham Carter - because I think she would be fun and she would be wearing one of my hats.
Fred Astaire - it would have to be a tea dance and he would be the most sublime partner.
Peter Cooke - because by all accounts he was one of the funniest dining companions ever.
Dudley Moore - because they would be hilarious together and he could play the piano for us.
Dorothy Parker - for witty and pithy comment and she might like a hat too.
Madame Paulette - Parisian 'Queen of Milliners' I could learn so much from her.
David Niven - because he would be charming and urbane and could regale us with stories of old Hollywood.
Woody Allen - he could join Dudley in some jazz and maybe write an amusing vignette of the occasion.
Diana Vreeland - because I think she would be truly inspirational.
Dorian Thomson - my late partner, because I think he would be so proud of me for this venture and and because he loved a hat and was incredibly entertaining and funny - it would also be a chance to say goodbye to him properly which I never had.
And can I add my photographer friend Ian looking on with his camera so I would have great visual memories of the event? - a somewhat odd assortment but you did say it would be a 'Mad' Hatters Tea Party!
Me: of course you can!Suggest a correction