Karen Morris, a Hong Kong born milliner, describes her business as “Hatting the Ladies of America… And the World”. – Karen Morris Millinery. Based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Karen designs artistically crafted hats. EDGE is delighted to interview Karen and share her unique skill and business model to the EDGE network.
RPHill: Tell us about your beginnings in the millinery business and your passion for creating fashion hats?
KM: I have always loved fashion and was sure my career would end-up tied to the fashion industry in some manner. But I wasn’t completely sure what I would do for my career. Through my exposure to British fashion, I got to know about two of the most famous milliners… Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy. As I studied their work, I was drawn into the level of creativity. It’s like a combination of fashion design and sculpting. I also loved the fact that every work is one-of-a-kind and mostly one-size-fits-all. By eliminating things like sizing, it increases my ability to think creatively.
It appears that you design for two labels, two different audiences? Tell us about those labels and why you positioned your brand to offer the two labels?
My flagship line, Karen Morris Milliner, is all about my real dream and passion to make ultra-high-fashion haute couture designs using the most exotic materials that I import from all around the world, even as far away as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and really from anywhere I can imagine.
The problem with these extravagant sculptural works is that they are expensive and the market for these pieces is quite limited. And that’s where my Obsession line comes in. I wanted to offer wearable hats that better fit into everyday fashion budgets. But I didn’t want to drag down my haute couture line by placing more value-oriented pieces into my flagship line. Basically, I’m following a brand model many famous designers use. For example just think about the haute couture Alexander McQueen line and how it relates to the more approachable McQ by Alexander McQueen line.
I see that you are very busy getting your line exposed to the retail industry and selling direct to the public. What are some of the challenges and what venues do you find productive in selling your line through to retail – trade shows, fashion markets, and/or direct to the retail/buyer?
I continue to explore retail options, but I have found that there is a significant challenge in reselling hats through retail in that most ladies prefer a custom-made hat piece crafted to match their specific outfit and event. So most of my ready-to-wear hats really serve the primary purpose of inspiring ladies to consider adding a hat to their ensemble. Then, after they’ve gained interest in a hat, they typically contact me directly to discuss a custom piece. I have also had growing interest from fashion museums and special events, and continue to explore all my options for reaching high-fashion ladies and inspiring them to remember the role of the hat in ladies style from years past.
Product placement [e.g. magazines, media, and celebrities] is a sought after means of getting your collection exposed. Press is usually good for businesses. Are you finding this a beneficial way of exposing your hats and, if so, how do you go about placing your product?
The press is an invaluable tool for generating exposure for my fashions and I owe much of my success to date to the interest shown by the industry. In addition to traditional print media, I’ve found social media to be a fantastic way to connect with fashionistas all around the world.
The EDGE network includes retailers [and consumers] looking for those emerging designers. What strategies have you developed that set your line apart from other milliners, if you don’t mind sharing. OR, how do you feel you differentiate from your competition?
First, I follow emerging fashion trends closely. Hats are accessories to clothing fashions, so it’s important that my hat designs follow trends rather than trying to stand apart all alone. For me to be successful, my designs must successfully accessorize all of the trendiest fashions each season. To stay on top of the ever-changing fashion trends, I attend many runway shows including the shows of emerging artists such as the graduation shows at popular fashion colleges, etc.
Another talent of yours is tutoring. For those recent fashion industry graduates or emerging designers just starting out, what business tip would you share that has served you well?
One thing that I love about being an artisan is the ability to give back to others in my industry. So many milliners have helped me grow in my career through mentoring and providing apprenticeships, that I have really come to value all of those experiences, and I truly don’t think I ever could have achieved the success I have today without all of their help. Millinery is an old style industry with special handwork techniques handed down from milliner to milliner. It would be impossible to learn all of the specialized tricks of our trade through a regular college or university program. That’s why I’m very happy to dedicate part of my time to giving back to help other milliners learn and to help grow millinery around the world.
One word to describe today’s fashion hat business?
Trendy.EDGE congratulates Karen Morris on her journey so far and extends continued success for the future!
All Images: courtesy of Karen Morris Millinery