Crystal Birch wears a hat nearly every day. Without one, she says, she feels a little bit naked. The founder and designer of ‘The Real Crystal Birch’ — the label under which she creates and sells gorgeously structured, quality headwear for both the classicist and the eccentric — Cape Town’s maverick milliner has created a brand that is dedicated to craftsmanship, filled with humour, and is unapologetically her.
Today, Birch is wearing a purple tie-dye, wide-brimmed hat, complete with Gucci-branded trimming featuring imagery of the children’s cartoon character, Peppa Pig. “It adds so much pizzaz to your look,” she says of her favourite clothing item. “It’s a conversation starter.”
Co-owner of one of South Africa’s most prominent hat factories, Parisian Milliners, for the past four years, Birch’s hats are bursting with colour and enthusiasm, and both draw upon and buck tradition. From classic visors and straw boater hats, to pom pom laden boleros and felt poorboys, The Real Crystal Birch offers something for everyone.
We caught up with Birch to find out more about her work and how she’s growing her business.
How did you get your start in this industry?
I started my career as a stylist for 10 years before studying millinery in London. There I did an apprenticeship with Piers Atkinson — everyone from Beth Ditto to Lady Gaga and Kelis have worn his hats.
As for the space I’m in today, I first visited the Parisian Milliners factory in 2004 and begged for an internship. They said no but I eventually started manufacturing from here about four years ago when I started my shop. My partnership with Harry [Faktor], who co-owns the factory, has been so rewarding. He doesn’t really restrict me in any way, and having been in the industry for over 60 years, he’s taught me so much.
Do you wear a hat every day?
I almost do. Not always, like when I’m going for a new haircut I don’t, but when my hair’s growing out I’m like ‘Ah, perfect excuse!’ But yes, I feel a bit naked without a hat. I love them so much, they’re really a part of me. Sometimes I’ll wear three different hats in one day.
There’s a story my family likes to tell where I was about four or five years old and I had a matching sunflower hat and dress which I refused to take off for five days.
What does success mean to you — from both a creative and a business perspective?
Creatively it means that I have the freedom to create what I want. It’s happened to an extent already where I feel so fortunate and happy to be able to just breathe and play.
From a business perspective, obviously it’s when the numbers add up and when we start to make a real profit. We have forty workers in this factory and we’re making hats in a market where people can sometimes feel like headwear is too alien or they’re a bit scared of it, so what we are trying to do is a big task. What we need is to encourage more retailers to buy local.
What is something that you would love to achieve with your business?
I think exposing this type of product to younger people. So many of our clients are much older — in their sixties and seventies — and I’d love for a younger generation to learn what headwear is all about. I want them to learn how to wear it and see that it’s not necessarily a conservative thing, it can be a cool thing. It can be something that adds value to your outfit just as much as your shoes do.
As a creative, what was it like getting a handle of the business side of things?
It wasn’t easy; there is so much that you have to know. I think the first six months of operating was spent solely doing paperwork. You have to think about so many things like insurance and taxes and labour relations. It was a hardcore shock to the system. Words like ‘budget’ and ‘quantifying’ became my new language.
What’s the most important lesson that running your own business and brand has taught you?
That cashflow is key, regardless of whatever business you are in.
What is next for The Real Crystal Birch?
2019 is the year that I am focusing on international clients. I really want to ignite the factory’s relationship with more international brands.
I have recently started making use of PayPal’s amazing service that makes it so easy for local businesses to participate in the international economy. So many people have it, it’s almost like a universal currency and I am happy that I can get more international clients to buy into my business through their payment platform.
Interview by Lindsay Samson
Photos by Amber Rose Cowie
This interview and been edited and condensed.