Milliner Jolana Kotábová on hat design in the Czech Republic

Jolana Kotábová

In this week’s Czech Life my guest is Czech milliner Jolana Kotábová, an expert hat designer who – after many years of experience in the field – opened her own studio in Prague in 2011. Located in a beautiful stone house with vaulted ceilings in Prague’s Nerudova Street, her studio focuses on original women’s hats combining both traditional elements and modern. Anyone interested in felt, straw or braided-straw designs with flair should take the time to visit.

Jolana Kotábová
When we met at her workshop in Nerudova Street I was able to ask Jolana Kotábová not only about millinery in the Czech Republic today, but also how she herself had pursued what some see as an increasingly ‘rare’ career.

“It wasn’t easy at first: as a little girl although I was very creative I can’t say I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The main impulse later came from my aunt, who had experience in the artistic field. As a result, I studied the art of hat-making at high school, but really only learned the basics there: how to make headwear, how to sew and so on.

“When I was 19, I was introduced to older women who worked in one of the many still-existing studios, who had extensive experience dating back to the war or before. Some of them had worked in First Republic salons when hats really meant something. At 19, I found my new co-workers very old, but they were wonderful and taught me a lot.”

Jolana’s first job was at a milliner’s in Jungmannova Street in the city centre, later she worked in Prague 7. But at that time, in the 1990s, many earlier sites, that had survived 40 years of communism, began to disappear – hit hard by a drop in demand, increasing rents and changing fashions. The number of outlets where one could buy original designs lessened significantly. But it was not the first time that the field was hard-hit. Jolana Kotábová again:

“Before communism, it was widely considered a faux-pas to leave the house without a hat but the 1950s went a long way in changing that – almost stamping out the tradition. Under communism, hats were suddenly shunned or frowned upon as a bourgeois hold-over. They were replaced by proletarian women’s scarves or berets. That changed again later, but in the 1950s if you put on a hat, you were seen almost as a provocateur.”

In the ‘60s, the situation improved and suffered various ups-and-downs through to the 1980s. But the tradition survived. Like today, there were a number of social events and undertakings where traditional headwear was still considered essential: weddings, funerals, christenings, official celebrations and so on. Even at the worst of times, there were always women (both hat-makers and passionate customers) says the designer, who stuck with it - for whom the custom-made hat never went out of style.

Regarding different types of women’s headwear there are two that are the most widespread in the Czech Republic: hats of felt or straw. The designer explains:

“Material is everything and in the Czech Republic when it comes custom-made hats the most popular are either felt or straw. The felt probably most often comes from rabbit fur. One pre-fabricated piece requires four furs. Tonak is a major producer, who cuts down the fur, brushes it down, and prepares the felt and pre-fabricated pieces are then used by designers for individual hats.

“The felt is very formative and pliant when you steam it and holds its shape after drying on a wooden hat shaper or block. After that you work on the brim, you add decorative elements which can be beads, a feather, fabric, a bow or band.”

Many different hats of course are on view at Jolana Kotábová’s studio, all handmade. I asked the designer what principles guided her approach. Here’s what she said:

“I try to design hats that attract attention and in some cases can be extravagant. But they also have to be practical. The type of hat a customer chooses can be surprising: some are bolder than I’d expect, others more conservative, but the main thing is that they must suit the wearer. Everybody is different. I have one customer who attracts a lot of attention, who is very whimsical and in her case it’s sometimes better to go with a more ‘serious’ design to sort of ‘ground’ her.

“Regarding the process of choosing or ordering a hat, customers generally come with a certain idea of what they’re looking for or we discuss options, and sometimes draw up sketches for designs. So while I have my own Internet site, it’s much preferred to come in and try on individual designs or agree on a certain look.”

Certainly it is one thing to look at designs sitting on wooden forms on the shelf and another entirely to see them worn. The designer was kind enough to show me a couple, putting them on. And that is when individual designs truly ‘come to life’.

“This is one is straw, it’s a kind of tiny beret which you have to wear a bit to the side but has this great extravagant bow with a feather. It aims to make a bold statement that you can’t really get a sense of when you just see it resting on the shelf.”

“The one I have now, at first glance, has a very dominant brim which slightly hides the eyes and part of the face but at the same time attracts.”

Jolana Kotábová’s clients include people from all walks of life who share one thing: a passion for original design, flair, and enjoyment from social events. According to the milliner although there are fewer designers now working in the field, and the country has been hit by tough economic times, an interest in women’s custom-made hats remains. Regular clients include everyone from embassy officials to fashion designers and then there are those who come in for the first time for weddings or other events who discover hats are ‘for them’. The tradition may be a far-cry, for example, from Great Britain’s, but there are still plenty of events where hats have their place – from the annual Pardubice steeplechase to polo matches and various official gatherings.

A year or so after opening her own business and returning to hat-making - seven years after taking time off to raise two children with her husband – things have gotten off the ground and Kotábová expects the second year to draw further interest among those who appreciate quality which at the same time is affordable – not costing more, for example, than a pair of new shoes. Jolana Kotábová again:

“It’s all handmade and no two hats, even if something like a series is asked for, can be exactly the same. There are always tiny differences. They are truly originals. And things are good now: there is a new generation of young people who aren’t afraid to put something on their heads! And there is the older generation for whom hats have always been important. A year after launching the business, I feel positive about the future.”

So, if you are of the female persuasion or a husband or boyfriend looking for the ideal gift, be sure to visit Jolana Kotábová’s website, which is in Czech and English, for more information.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 7, 2012.