Heading towards the finishing line

Milliner Phillip Rhode works intensely between April and November in preparation for the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival. The day after the final horse race is over, his work literally takes a dive. “It completely dies after that!” So when he’s not preparing for the Cup, he works with the Melbourne Theatre Company and The Australian Ballet Company. “When you’re working with a costume designer in a theatre or in a ballet company, they ‘draw the picture, but you could say that I ‘draw the line’,” says Rhodes, whose studio in South Melbourne requires considerable manoeuvring to reach (across a car park and up a set of wooden stairs). “You need to be determined to reach the studio,” he adds.

Rhodes has had several determined clients since establishing his business in 1992. After returning from London where he worked with Berman & Nathan, one of the largest costumiers in Europe, he settled in Melbourne. Rhodes initially learnt his craft from the late William Beale, who owned Mr. Individual hat salon in Malvern Road, South Yarra. “I still recall William’s advice. ‘If you make extreme headwear it shouldn’t move’,” says Rhodes, who picks up the nearest hat on his workroom bench to illustrate the point. “See, all the flowers and the netting on this hat are perfectly still!”

There wasn’t a conscious decision for Rhodes to become a milliner. After returning from London, aged 22, he set up a trestle table in his parent’s living room and made 12 hats. With confidence in his stride, he marched in to see the buyer at David Jones, then a Mr. Jim Eaves (referred to as Mr. Eaves). “I laid them all out on the floor and he selected 11 from the 12,” says Rhodes, who walked out of the department store only carrying the one hat, a black number, with a veil attached.

For Rhode’s private clients, many of whom have been coming to see him for years, his designs are totally inspired by ‘who they are’, their personalities and their idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, the client purchases an outfit for the races that may only cost a $100. “They often see the hat as bringing the outfit to life and are quite happy to spend $700 or $800 to make the ensemble work,” says Rhodes. “The hat becomes the ‘treat’, and unlike the dress in many instances, something that’s just created for her,” he adds.

For the client with the simple inexpensive black dress, Rhodes created a hat with two birds perched on a branch. Another hat for the same client came in the form of a broad-brimmed Dior-inspired white hat with a sea-green flower attached.

This year for Myer in Melbourne and Sydney, Rhodes has created a number of hats especially for the racing season. There’s a straw hat with a berm-like mound sprouting a range of vibrant straw flowers. “It reminds me of a secret garden,” says Rhodes, who also designed a Heidi-like crown (as seen in the film Heidi) full of blossoming flowers, also in straw. Unlike the early days, when Mr. Eaves purchased 11 of the 12 designs showed by Rhodes, today’s fashion climate errs on caution.

“The buyer didn’t go for this hat,” says Rhodes, picking up a pale green 1930s-inspired hat with matching lace and mint-green features. “When I designed this hat, I could envisage a woman with a bob (hairstyle popular in the 1920s and ‘30s) and a chiseled jawline wearing it.”

The number of hats created for a collection has also been reduced. Once Rhodes designed 40 hats, now it’s approximately half that number. He’s also conscious of what will sell as opposed to creating ‘flights of fancy’ that may inspire his fingers rather than the customer. Black and white continues to feature in his collection, but an entirely black hat is not on his agenda. “In the 1990s, everyone wanted to wear a black hat to the races. Now women want to look a little more flashy,” says Rhodes.

Colour has also become stronger in the last few collections. Pinks, pale and mint greens, feathers and lace, are combined with silk flowers. The traditional straw boater, popular in the 1920s, has also been elevated several notches by Rhodes. His boater features two rims of straw in muted tones of taupe and cream, with a fishnet veil. The pillbox-style hat in charcoal black, white and yellow, complete with ‘floating’ black bird feathers, was also put on the rejection pile. A piece of sculpture impeccably conceived, it slightly bewilders Rhodes as to why this one wasn’t embraced. “It’s elegant, but with a point of difference,” says Rhodes.

Although Rhodes isn’t under pressure to create several collections each year, like many fashion designers, he continually thinks about hats every day. Shapes and fabrics enter his mind, and he regularly scours his studio shelves to find just the right thing to start of the design process. “I have a ‘consider box’ next to my workbench where I regularly drop in fabrics or even hat forms,” says Rhodes, picking up a ladle-like form that will inspire a collection. Sometimes, inspiration simply comes from stepping off a tram and seeing the colours worn by a mannequin in a shop window. “I recently saw a pink dress from a leading international label with a sea green boa draped around. Clients expect you to have a global perspective,” he says.

Although Rhodes expects to see the finery of the fields at this year’s Melbourne Cup, he still expects to see a fair share of off-the shoulder clingy white dresses worn with gold headpieces and gold shoes. “Taste is one thing, but whatever shape and material it happens to be, it needs to be well constructed. You could say I have a ‘boysie brain’. I love the mechanics of putting things together as much as seeing women wearing my hats,” adds Rhodes.

Words by Stephen Crafti.


Phillip Rhodes can be contacted on 0408 400 170.

Lifestyle & Design

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