Gray with Sequins

Woman Around Town: Abigail Aldridge –
Manhattan’s Mad Hatter

Gray with Sequins

Fall Fashion Week delivered the expected. High-end threads hung on beanpole models as they walked straight lines and maintained serious dispositions. Uptown, there was a different kind of party.

Ginny’s Supper Club, the lounge underneath Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, hosted an event called “Harlem on Display.” It awakened the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s and 30s while showcasing local designers and retailers.

Among the merchants was The Brownstone, a clothing boutique with a flagship store on 125th Street. Models grinned widely as their dance moves and hands accentuated their curves. Atop their heads were big lavish hats designed by Abigail Aldridge (photo above), a Manhattan-based milliner that has been working in New York City since the 80s.

“Harlem is very stylish in a dramatic way,” Aldridge said. “They’re known to be great hat wearers . . . a little bit more bold in their presentation. I can use brighter colors and more dramatic shapes. They appreciate your creativity.”

Aldridge makes hats under her own label for boutiques across Manhattan, designing for society types on Madison Avenue, the artsy downtown crowd, as well as the African American women in Harlem who want to continue the big church hat tradition.

“Now, you have to make things more interesting.” she said. “You try to make designs exciting but wearable.”

Overall, Aldridge considers hats to be a special thing, a form of expressing individuality. From the everyday ego boost to the once-in-a-lifetime occasion, she feels they create a positive energy. Examples include the soft elegant hat for the cancer patient losing her hair, the bridal hat with drama to it, and the Kentucky Derby stunner.

Aldridge grew up with the idea that “it was nice to be creative.” Her childhood was spent in Maine on a piece of land by the ocean. Her mother was an artist who taught her how to sew, and her father was a poet and English teacher.

Early on, she discovered a trunk of vintage clothing and hats that were left behind by her great aunt, a foreign correspondent for Hearts. This woman would send back stories from London and Paris, and it was these material remnants of her life that contributed to Aldridge’s sparked interest in fashion.

New York City was Aldridge’s next stop after high school. She couldn’t afford college, so she went to acting school, singing lessons and ballet while having brief stints as a waitress and sales girl.

Her first real job in fashion was making circus costumes for Eves-Brooks in 1980. After that, she got more clothing experience at various companies as a dressmaker and draper, making patterns for Broadway and ballet costumes. People would bring in beautiful sketches, and it was her job to figure out how they would lay and fit on the performer.

After eight years of overtime, she wanted to make the switch to hats. “Making hats is just like making clothes, only everything is round,” Aldridge explained with a laugh. This was around the time she read a New York Times article about young milliners starting out in the city. Back in the 80s, she states, it was a very novel thing to start a hat business since the only competition was brands that had been around for ages. But Aldridge wanted to experiment.

She got in touch with Victoria Donardo, someone featured in the Times piece, and she got her start in hats by working for her. She learned how to shape and fit hats using antique wooden blocks.  She also learned how to make pretty classic hats, straw hats for the warmer months, and felt hats for the rest of the year.

Aldridge eventually got her own label and started selling to friends. “Your label is like a signature on a painting,” Aldridge said. “You can’t make something unmarked and put it out there. I needed a way to sign my work.”

She would make postcard invitations with her drawings and have tea parties in her apartment. Her friends would drink big pots of spicy tea and browse her selection.

By the 90s, Aldridge’s hats were bought and sold by Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York, among others. She eventually transitioned into working with only Manhattan boutiques and has built relationships with what she calls a “wonderful group of nice creative owners.”

In addition to The Brownstone in Harlem, the other boutiques that sell her goods are Seigo Accessories on Madison Avenue, The Hat Shop on Thompson Street in SoHo, Gallery Vercon in the East Village, and Queens of Hats in Portland, Maine. She has also been commissioned to make a few fascinators for apparel company Alice+Olivia.

Throughout her career, Aldridge has seen hats fluctuate in and out of style. She feels like part of the group of hat makers that helped bring them back.

Sometimes milliners venture into other things such as bags or clothes, but Aldridge doesn’t want to do anything else. She enjoys the craft and working with her hands. She wants to keep solving the artistic problem of finding the right balance and the right amount of trim.

“I’m proud of being a milliner,” she says, simply put. Her mission is to be the best in the city.

Woman Around Town’s Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Moon House Chinese and Japanese restaurant
Favorite Place to Shop: Garment center fabric and trim stores
Favorite New York Sight: RFK Triboro Bridge at night
Favorite New York Moment: Seeing Gone With the Wind at Radio City with my grandmother
What You Love About New York: People from all over the world striving for excellence

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