Set unassumingly in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood, the Lilliput Hats storefront has the quaint air of a different time. Beyond the red-framed door and retro window displays is a shop that has become a local institution. A funky colourful interior sets the stage for the stars: old-fashioned hat molds and of course, the fanciful headdresses themselves — a glimpse into an era of unabashedly ladylike elegance.
Going on her eighth year with Circle Craft, Lilliput Hats owner Karyn Gingras, whose impressive client list includes names such as Rachel McAdams and Whoopi Goldberg, stumbled into the art of millinery by chance. “I signed up for a tap-dance class in 1988 and it was full; go figure,” she says with a laugh. “I took the hat-making class instead.” First considering it a hobby, something to do while completing her social-work degree, she began making hats for high-end stores, dropping them off on consignment by bike. “The hats sold well, and then I started doing small craft shows and custom work. The rest is history.”
History is what guides Gingras in her present-day work as well. Relegated today to mainly the most formal of occasions, hats and the craft of millinery may seem to be a relic of the past, but according to the designer, the lost art is enjoying a comeback.
“There is a big resurgence of handmade and vintage-inspired fashion. People love something that harkens back to a simpler time,” says Gingras, displaying an assortment of her vintage-hat molds, some of which date back to the early 1920s. “I reinvent vintage styling with a modern twist. They are classic in styling, and reflect current colour trends, but the stretching and steaming and shaping have not changed in hundreds of years.”
Gingras’ whimsical designs range from dainty cloches to mysterious fascinators, masculine fedoras, and everything in between. Rabbit and beaver felts cozy up winter hats, while veils, flowers, and ribbons sourced from Europe embellish lighter styles.
“I get inspired by many things, old movies, the way a fabric drapes,” says the designer. Her client base is varied, she tells us, ranging from brides to horse enthusiasts and gala attendees. “Breaking down luxurious textiles, dyeing — the design process is very organic and there are styles I experiment with that become happy accidents.”
One of Gingras’ most memorable projects was a hat worn by Gord Downie of the famed band The Tragically Hip on a recent Canadian tour. “It ended with over 11 million viewers watching the last live broadcast,” she recalls. “It was an honour to be part of Canadian music history.”
As the nature of the craft evolves in the digital age, Gingras says it will take keeping up with new platforms such as Etsy to stay relevant, but she is dedicated to preserving the art of millinery. “It’s a beautiful artisanal process rooted in women’s independence — the second oldest profession,” she says with a wink.