LABOUR OF LOVE
WORDS ANNA VLACH
PHOTOGRAPHY MATT TURNER
If you’re going to follow Coco Chanel’s famous “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off” style edict, just make sure it’s not your millinery if you’re meeting Sylvy Earl. The official milliner for this year’s Adelaide Cup has had a lifelong appreciation of hats thanks to her grandfather Hanh Dang. “I always remember when we were little if he ever left the house he would always have a hat on. Now I look back and I find that so amazing, he was always so beautifully presented whenever he went out and it is something that I think is still really nice,” Earl, 32, says.
The creator of a brand, which has found favour with celebrities Melissa Doyle, Natalie Barr and Street Smith’s Liz Sunshine, and been worn to Royal Ascot, works out of a studio in North Adelaide creating bespoke and custom pieces for clients as far away as Sweden.
Inspired by her grandfather, Earl began studying millinery for fun at TAFE night classes while working as a physiotherapist in Brisbane, where she and her husband, Brenton, were living at the time. “I’ve always liked making things, I am more drawn to things on a smaller scale,” Earl says.
Indeed, the piece which has become her signature style — the ethereal headband favoured by brides and racegoers who prefer minimalist millinery – is understated yet intricate.
“My feathered headbands are made from goose feathers and I hand-knot them to give that spiky look,” Earl says. “I like using materials that you see all the time but using them a little bit differently. A lot of what I do is not that difficult — it’s just time-consuming and you need a lot of patience — the styles are pretty simple, but have lots of little details.”
When it comes to making men’s and women’s hats, Earl sticks with tradition using hat blocks — both vintage and ones made in the historic South Australian town Mannum — to shape her creations.
“It’s hat blocks, steaming, ironing and some pins… there’s not that much new equipment,” Earl says.
Earl’s hats, showcased at last year’s Adelaide Fashion Festival, also embody her trademark less-is-more look.
“That runway was mainly summer hats and had quite a casual modern feel to it — big brims and floaty, frayed edges,” Earl says, adding there were “ginormous” sun hats on parade.
“But even when I do go big, I feel like I still need to keep it relatively simple … well, as understated as a gigantic hat can be because that’s where my style is at.”
That said, the festival also presented Earl with an opportunity to move out of her comfort zone when she was invited to create millinery for SA couture house Jaimie Sortino.
“Jaimie Sortino and (AFF creative director) Chris Kontos gave me a brief and I had a bit of a play around,” she says.
The end result was nothing short of magical — masks which, in Earl’s words, were “a bit mysterious … like a puff of smoke”.
Those two runway shows, and the delicate, whimsical pieces Earl made to complement Adelaide designer Greta Rumsby’s GretaKate bridal and eveningwear also on show at the festival, caught the eye of Vogue Australia’s Philippa Moroney leading to another creative challenge. Earlier this year Earl was commissioned to create four one-off pieces for the Vogue Australia Premium Runway 1 at the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival. “The team at Vogue were pretty open telling me ‘as long as it says Vogue and you can read it just go for it’ … I really enjoyed doing something that was a bit playful and quirky,” she says, adding her designs were showcased alongside milliners she admires — namely Sydney’s Suzy O’Rourke and Brisbane’s Christie Murray.
That exposure and the inclusion of one of her headbands in the April issue of Vogue Australia will, no doubt, only increase demand for her millinery. But Earl intends to remain very much at the creative centre of her business, which is clearly a labour of love.
“I like the idea of it still just being me because the hands-on aspect of millinery is the whole reason I got into it,” she says.