Hats off to one milliner making a difference!

Red Dragon Fly Aka Tombo is the beautiful millinery of Pheigi Sugahara MacDonald a creative Scot now living in Sapporo, Japan. After travelling to many countries Pheigi is on a mission to help lessen the world’s waste, to encourage people to think about what they are buying, to ask questions about where materials and sourced and to encourage people to wear hats.

Iced Vovo fell in love with these hats and had to find out more:

Q: The message on your Etsy site I thought was very true and poignant, we are all responsible for making our own mess in the world and we are also responsible to help clean it up. You are making a real concerted effort to do this with the choice of materials you buy, as recycled or organic as you can get, how difficult are you finding it to maintain this practice in your work?

A: Honestly the hardest part is stopping myself from buying things. Japan is full of gorgeous cottons and printed fabrics but very few are organic cottons or hemp. The ability to walk past those rows and rows of fabrics has been a lesson in self control. Saying that, the Kimono silk available in Japan is amazing and there is nothing better than sitting in the middle of an old shop raking through the treasure troves of vintage kimono.

I find that it is sometimes hard to know exactly where things are from. As I am a small company it isn’t possible for me to go to the Philippines (where most sinamey is made) and check working conditions or ask about workers pay and the companies I buy from very rarely ask these questions of their suppliers. I focus for now on using Harris Tweed from the islands to help the cottage industries of my home country, reusing Kimono which I still can’t believe has been abandoned by its former owner, using 100% hemp and organic cotton and as far as possible using brooches and decorations that I (and my very helpful mother) find in old shops. I do say upfront that I don’t claim to be 100% planet friendly as some things I have very little choice over but it is something I hope the company can start to influence if/when we get bigger.

Q: How long have you been a milliner and what attracted you to this profession? Are you self taught or trained or a mixture of both?

A: After seeing all of the people working and creating from their homes on my travels through Asia I figured hey I can do that so on returning to Japan I started to make home accessories, baby clothes and other bits and bobs. This stuff was a steep learning curve in what doesn’t sell in Japan and after being all over the place I forced myself to hone in on one thing that I loved making and that was hats. I don’t know where it came from I just seemed to fall in to it. I sat down with a load of buckram and some books that I found and started to play with the fabrics and it all came together. On a return visit to the UK I did a one week course with Rose Cory, who used to make hats for the Queen Mother, who showed me some tricks of the trade. Since then it has been a journey of discovery and a lot of pricked fingers.

Q: Your Celtic background, as well as the Japanese influences, is definitely prevalent in your hats, what about both these cultures inspires you?

I love colour. Growing up in Scotland I don’t think I ever saw a pastel colour in nature. Everything is deep and bold and brave and that is reflected in the colours of Harris Tweed which I think has a depth that no other fabric I have seen has. Kimono share this richness of colour but are layered with intricate details and embroidery. Kimono also love to use clashing colours. The kimono is a totally different colour from the underskirt which contrasts with the obi. Traditionally the wife of a samurai would wear a kimono of 16 layers each complimenting yet contrasting the one before and after. That play of bold colours and yet fine detail never stops inspiring my imagination. On top of that both Celtic and Japanese designs focus on the beauty of nature and so are easy to combine.

Q: There is a lovely whimsy and a modern yet retro feel to your designs is this what you were after?

A: It was and I am really happy you picked up on it! I find most hats today are made for events such as weddings and races and so seem to be swamped in flowers and feathers and veiling. I really wanted to strip all that back and make hats that were classic and chic without making you look like a grandma. Vintage hats usually only match vintage dresses and lets be honest only the most dedicated followers of vintage fashion can be bothered finger curling their hair and squeezing into a pencil skirt to go down to the pub quiz on a Tuesday. I like to think my hats can be thrown on with messy hair a pair of jeans and a big warm woolly jumper and still give the air of a put together fashion forward look.

Q: Do you have the design in mind first or do the materials you work with determine the shapes?

A: I think one of the reasons I fell into millinery was because I am so bad at art. I would love to say I am an arty person but it takes me a long time to actually sit down and draw something that resembles the image in my head. Millinery is more like flower arranging; you have all the beautiful flowers, fabrics, feathers etc.. you just have to put them together in a pleasing way. Making the base of a hat is pretty close to sculpting which I love. So no I don’t decide before hand. I have a rough idea of what I want to make and I find fabrics and bits that match but once the base is made I like to play around with lots of different options before deciding on a final design.

Q: You mention that you have some new hat blocks on the way and are working on some tweed winter warmers can you tell us a little more about these?

A: These are now available in my Etsy shop. When I first started making hats I wanted them to be available to everyone so tried to keep the price down. The truth is hats take a lot of time and skill to make and I ended up undercharging for my work which was not only bad for me but also other milliners on etsy who I was unfairly undercutting with unrealistic pricing. I think it is common for artists and crafters to be reluctant to charge a fair price for their work even though they are putting all of their time, effort and artistic design into it but six months ago I sat down and worked out all of my costs, time and overheads and repriced my hats accordingly which is difficult to do when we are swamped in a mass produced market. This however made me feel that I was cutting off some people that I didn’t want to loose as customers so I have made some simple button tweed hats and priced them bellow cost as a winter treat to all the girls on a budget out there (or make them affordable for savvy Christmas Present buying boyfriends).

Q: Everyone, in our Grandparents era, used to wear hats why do you think that now they seem to be more limited to weddings, horse-racing carnivals or fancy dress?

A: There are a lot of reasons for the death of the hat. Some blame the car (cars and big hats don’t go together well), some the hairstyles of the 50’s, some blame JFK (seriously). I think now it takes a very fashion confident person to wear something they know will get them stared at. Hats are like magnets, wear one and people will flock to you. They are sexy, mysterious, playful and have an air of class that intrigues people. You have to be confident to carry a hat. Some people say that they don’t suit hats which to me is like saying you don’t suit shoes. I look like an 8 year old when I wear flat pumps and can’t imagine how ridiculous I would look in the stiletto thigh highs that Japanese girls have a real thing for. Everyone suits hats you just have to find the right one.

Q: What’s the significance behind your shop name?

A: When I first moved out to Japan I lived in a small town called Shibata. My first weekend here I was feeling homesick and more than a little lost so took a walk out to a park on the outskirts of the town. It was the beginning of July and crazy hot so I lay down on the grass feeling very sorry for myself and had a wee nap. When I opened my eyes again there was a cloud of literally hundreds of red dragonflies flying just above me. I felt like I was in a Miyazaki Manga movie. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen and after that whenever I got homesick or sad I would close my eyes and imagine myself lying in the grass looking up at all the dragonfly. I guess it kind of became my happy place.

Red Dragonfly in Japanese is Aka Tombo and is also the name of a very famous Japanese Poem about the longing for the home of your childhood and the people you left there. I found this out a lot later, I also found out that it is the tune the bin van plays as it does its collection in the morning (everything in Japan has a tune, even the bin van).

Q: What are your future plans for the business?

A: I am really still trying to get things off the ground but I would love to eventually progress in to matching bags and tailored coats, maybe one day even shoes (no stiletto thigh highs though).

Q: Is your Etsy shop the only place people can buy your beautiful headwear?

A: I have a website: www.akatombomilliner.com but if you want to buy something it currently still directs you back to Etsy. If you are in Japan I will be selling at the underground market in Sapporo on December 29th &30th and from January a small collection of hats will be available at the artists corner in Sapporo Factory.

Hopefully more options will become available in the future but until then I ship anywhere the Japanese post office allows me (I am yet to find somewhere they don’t ship to).

My hat arrived beautiful boxed like a gorgeous jewel!
Quaint Japanese setting and rich colours. Look out for this hat on a Styling page soon.

I’m right behind Pheigi in wanting to bring back the hat – they are so versatile and great for any season providing shade from the sun and helping to warm you up in winter, not to forget they can just add some style and pizazz to any outfit. Follow the links to Red Dragonfly Aka Tombo online at Etsy or find the details on the Fab-Finds page.

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