This is such a dead art that all of the people who know how to do it are actually dead,” jokes Ryan Wilde, the director of millinery at New York’s historic JJ Hat Center, as she adjusts a bright orange fedora. “There’s no one to ask.”
But as the 34-year-old Wilde explains it, that’s half the fun of her work. Her decade-long career has been filled with experimentation and boundary pushing. “I love when a client walks in here and they’re like, ‘What can we do?’ ” she says. “I like making it happen. I like challenging myself. I like being afraid to make something.”
While she has always been influenced by extravagant style—her father, a professor of painting at Syracuse University in Florence (Italy), dressed his daughter in elaborate costumes for portraits—Wilde’s wasn’t exactly a direct route to becoming one of the country’s premier hatmakers. In fact, until a career-ending injury at age 15, she studied at the School of American Ballet, on the fast track to joining the New York City Ballet.
Instead, she studied photography at Syracuse, first at the Florence campus and then in London, where a chance encounter with fashion editor Isabella Blow—muse to designers Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen—led her to discover a passion for hatmaking. When Blow gave her the names of women across the city from whom she could learn the basics of the craft, Wilde was hooked: The combination of art, sculpture and function, mixed with just the right amount of impracticality, was the perfect fit for the young artist.
“I really like getting dirty—I like gardening, all that stuff,” she says. “So when I first started taking millinery classes, it just felt so right. It was fashion, it was art, and it was hard labour—it spoke to me instantly.”
After stints making hats for Henri Bendel and Patricia Field, Wilde opened her own custom shop in Brooklyn in 2009. At the JJ Hat Center, she designs seasonal collections and creates custom hats for men and women—including LL Cool J, Donald Trump and Lady Gaga—though she considers herself primarily a men’s designer. “Men can really flourish in here; they feel pampered in a way that men don’t usually get to feel,” she says. “They are given all of these choices, and I’ve seen men shop here in a way they can’t shop anywhere else.”
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(This story appears in the May-June 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)