12 Apr Meet the Makers: Crystal Birch
While running The Hat Factory is serious business for Crystal Birch, the maverick milliner imbues her headwear with a sense of whimsy and fun – beacons of delight for both the wearer and those whose heads are turned. Birch went from studying fashion design to operating a small stand at the Old Biscuit Mill market selling her unique hats and now, she’s the new custodian of an 85-year-old hat manufacturing company (previously known as Parisian Milliners). As one of the vendors on 10and5’s concept store Creators’ Depot, we caught up with Birch to hear more about her journey and crowning achievements.
First things first, what do you love about hats and headwear?
I love that hats can radically transform your look and persona. I love how it can also take you into another era or to the future.
After a 10-year stint as a stylist, you went to study millinery in London. What happened next?
I studied a short course in millinery in in London 2009, thinking it would stay a hobby and I will make hats for sun… and now I own an 85-year-old hat factory!
You apprenticed with Piers Atkinson. How much value do you attribute to this experience in terms of getting to where you are today?
Piers Atkinson is very special as a person and milliner having fun and pushing stiff British boundaries. He plays with naughty erotic ideas and he taught me that millinery indeed is ridiculous and I should have fun while I create!
What else has helped your journey from a practical perspective?
The big shock from being a creative and learning all business, legal, HR and more about running a business. Its not just about making the hats. Cash flow is the most stressful thing and a buzzword for business.
In what ways (and directions) has your brand grown since you first started out? Tell us about some of the triumphs and challenges along the way.
When I started out I was named as “Top 20 reasons to visit SA” in Wallpaper magazine. I used to be in a small studio by myself creating what I really wanted for individuals. I now run a factory with 20 workers and can make more than 1500 hats per week for an array of clients and labels. The scale is radically different, but so is the playground.
On a day-to-day basis, what does running Crystal Birch entail?
I often feel like I work for First National Bank (FNB) for the amount of payments I need to make and check, managing my team, checking stock, running social media, writing lists for myself to remember it all, calling suppliers. When I get a chance, I day dream of what is next? Its ALL about problem solving.
Where do you look to for inspiration for new designs and collections? Is there anything that helps to jolt your imagination when you’re feeling a little stuck?
Currently we look at what we have and what we can get hold of, due to Covid – the world has shifted and so has our way of approaching collections and raw materials. This seems simple, but its much more of a wiggle and shuffle than our normal ways of doing things. LOCAL inspires me – what can we find here and what else we can make in this factory, for example the lamps we recently made or braiding baskets.
How do you know when it’s time to grow or scale back your team, and what do you look for in your colleagues and collaborators?
Our team has shrunk during 2020 from 38 to 16 and we have started growing a little bit again. I feel that we are at a good size now and we are a smaller, more dynamic team.
What is the most rewarding part of doing what you do?
Having enough money to pay myself as a business owner is one of them, it’s not been an easy time or year. The rewarding thing would be how much we have learnt, connected with other designers and how we stuck together. BUT seeing other people wear your hats with such flare and joy is a great feeling! Its makes me very happy that people turn heads and turn into hat lovers!
And finally, what’s next for Crystal Birch? Anything exciting we should keep an eye out for?
Teaching workshops and teaching people how important it is to wear a hat in summer. There is also a new product that I would love to launch on a platform like Kickstarter or Go Fund Me and see how we can raise capital for our business. Excited, but keeping it under wraps right now!