Interview with milliner Joanne Edwards

When Joanne Edwards realised something was missing for her in her fashion design career, she experimented with different crafts – and fell in love with millinery.

Find out how she changed career, and has since created head pieces for Sophie Ellis Bextor, Vidal Sassoon and an exhibition at the V&A museum in London.

What’s your career background?

I grew up in the North West of Ireland, which has a strong tradition of handcraft so I was inspired to create from an early age.

I’ve always loved art, craft and design so eventually chose to study fashion design in Dublin. I then moved to London where I designed women’s occasion wear for various high street brands.

Did you always want to be a milliner?

I always wanted to become a designer of some sort and followed a route into fashion design. Designing hats was something that came after working in the fashion industry where I worked for over a decade.

What made you leave the world of fashion design to become a milliner?

I felt something was missing in my work.  I loved designing dresses but over the years a strong desire had built up to create some sort of product with my hands and to become skilled in an area of handcraft.

Growing up in rural Ireland, I’d always been drawn to the skills of our craftspeople, such as our Donegal hand-weavers and textile artists. I was at a stage in life where I had no ties and nothing to lose so I saved up, temporarily left my job and spent some time exploring other creative areas I had an interest in.

I tried out various things, from placements in print studios, to jewellery courses but it was a millinery course which I found myself completely absorbed in. It had everything I loved about fashion design whilst allowing me to create a unique handmade product.

How hard was it to establish yourself?

It’s been quite a roller coaster since I started millinery! I combined a freelance three day per week job in fashion design job while learning millinery and building my skills.

I worked for other milliners before eventually deciding to pursue my own work full-time at Joanne Edwards Millinery. I’ve poured so much time, energy, blood, sweat and tears into getting to this stage, and there is still SO much to do!!

Who is your ideal customer?

I really love making hats for all types of women. It’s fun to dress the confident and experienced hat wearer who loves a very elaborate hat.

I’m equally excited when I get to create hats for women who’ve never worn a hat before. I love the reaction when we try something on which makes them feel incredible!

Hats have this magic ability to makes someone feel very special and stand somewhat taller. It’s a lovely feeling when you know you’re hats have given someone that feeling.

You’ve teamed up with some big names. How did that come about?

I have had some wonderfully varied and creative projects over the last year. I designed and made a collection of hats worn by Sophie-Ellis Bextor at Ascot for Appletise and was thrilled to have Sophie wear my hats!

I’ve enjoyed many creative and challenging headwear projects with Vidal Sassoon and have collaborated with the jewellery brand Venyx World creating headpieces for the Animal Charity Ball, displayed the the V&A museum in London.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Getting up to speed on the business side of things. I am not naturally business minded so this has been a huge learning curve. I have had a very supportive mentor over the past few years which has been a great help to me.

And your proudest moment so far?

When someone tries on my hat at the studio or at an event and simply declares their love for it!! That makes me very proud and I feel like I’ve succeeded in some small way in what I set out to do after leaving my job in Fashion Design.

I frequently enjoy participating in shopping events with LKBennett stores across London and I am absolutely thrilled when I receive lovely responses to my hats there also!!

Why is work so important to you?

I think we all need something to strive to improve on, to challenge us and which brings us rewards. For me that’s work, for others it may be something else in life. I consider myself very lucky that my work is very niche, incredible creative and unique!

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to follow a similar path?

1) Make financial planning your number one priority

It’s financially very tough in the early years and beyond, everything really does take longer than you anticipate.

Figure out in advance how you are going to fund your new path alongside your existing job. When the time comes, speak to your employer about reducing hours so you still can have a secure income whilst you build up your new career path.

2) Get to know your market

If you are selling a product, one of the most obvious considerations is who is actually going to buy it. It is essential you can attract the market who can pay for the type of product you are making.

Focus groups, talking to friends, getting in front of your audience and understanding your potential customer is a priority.

3) Find support and/or mentoring

Working for yourself has lots of rewards and many challenges. There can be some really hard times and working alone can leave you feeling unmotivated, lonely and frustrated.

I looked for a mentor early on as I knew I needed someone to keep me on track with my progress and accountability.

You can see more of Joanne Edwards millinery work on her website