Leo Carlton is not just a milliner, he's also under 50

Craftsmen are a dying breed and milliners, like carpenters or needle workers, are no exception. For the snapback generation, Sunday best is a concept as alien as communicating with one another IRL and the truth is, millennials can’t tell their fascinators from their fedoras. No wonder we tend to leave the subject of millinery to the mother of the bride and those toffs at Ascot.


Rising star and headwear designer Leo Carlton is here to change all that, and he works with virtually every up and coming brand on the LFW schedule.


I met with Leo on Kingsland Road, around the corner from the flat he shares with his photographer boyfriend, Alessandro Merlo, to find out more.

“I don’t want to be making hats for some princess’ dog,” Leo tells me earnestly. “But there aren’t that many people who are confident enough to wear an exciting hat.” They say a great hat speaks for itself, and I half expected Leo to turn up wearing something whimsical on his head, but his straw-coloured hair is loose and curls down over one eyebrow. Luckily, he has the gift of the gab and continues, “There's a market for show pieces in fashion. You still see a lot of hats on the catwalk but in general the only hats you see around you are beanies and caps. Other than that, it's occasion wear so Ascot and weddings.”


Since graduating from Cordwainers in 2015, Leo has been crowning models on the catwalks of LOVERBOY, Richard Quinn and Dilara Findikoglu whilst making custom pieces for Vogue, King Kong and 10 magazines. “I'm picking up more work from students or young designers that want show pieces because I think it helps with the styling. I'm making a lot of stuff that won't sell beyond that so I do one offs.” One-off pieces include the silver platter perched precariously atop Genevieve Welsh’s blue perm at Daniel Samson’s graduate show (Coutts card and crystal lines included) and upside-down rollerblade helmets for Paolina Russo. “I take a look at their mood boards and their line-ups and then it has to be kept quite organic really. I have a set price per piece, which is easier to keep track of because different hats take different lengths of time to make.”

As with everything in the fashion industry however, it’s not always that simple and designers have messed him around. “Sometimes when I work with friends, it kind of fucks our relationship up. For the Richard Quinn’s AW18 show, I made 12 things he never used. He paid but my issue is more with time than money. People are usually very last minute with everything and seem to think I can make 5 hats in 10 hours.”


Minor setbacks aside, Leo’s business plan is simple – say yes to everything. “I know I’ll get paid to make a weird crown for Tim Walker and I do stuff with Amanda Harleich, Katy England and Alistair Mackie. They support me a lot and Amanda was the first to pay me for a shoot for Vogue Italia. I got £400…Amanda’s fucking amazing.” However, it’s difficult to know the balance between creativity and making money. “If a big stylist gets in touch with me then I give them one free chance where. Patti Wilson recently asked me to make a cake hat for Vogue Italia and I didn’t do it in the end because they wouldn’t pay for any of it and shipping alone would’ve cost me £80.”


Though it may not seem like it on the surface, millinery is an incredibly hierarchical world and as I speak to Leo I realise one name keeps cropping up – Stephen Jones. Back in the early 80s, whilst studying fashion design at Saint Martins, Stephen was outfitting both himself and his friends in upcycled berets to wear to the Blitz club. Given the path most travelled by hat makers throughout history (Lanvin and Chanel) most presumed he would eventually find work as a fashion designer. But, after monopolising the millinery industry for 40 years, designing hats for Dior and Princess Diana, only Phillip Treacy and Noel Stewart (both former Stephen Jones apprentices) have come anywhere near close to de-crowning this queen of cloche.

“Stephen is head of NEWGEN and most millinery committees, meaning if you want to get anywhere, you need his stamp of approval,” Leo tells me - he's been assisting Stephen at his atelier in Covent Garden for 4 years and the patriarch is encouraging of his own design endeavours. "I would’ve loved to work for Phillip Treacy, but he won’t take people who are doing their own stuff on the side. He wants full commitment whereas Stephen mostly knows what I get up to and is supportive of that. Having said that, it isn’t until you leave his company that things start picking up a bit.”


I ask Leo if this scares him and his response is simple, “If you’re going to jump in a tank full of sharks you better be a great white.”

"I don't want to be making hats for some princess' dog"

"There aren't many people who are confident enough to wear an exciting hat"

"It's difficult to know the balance between creativity and making money"