Stepping out of the pier, I saw many relaxing, shaded figures heading to different directions, and then a voice of a sweet lady came to my ear, only to find Bess Leeder was holding a bicycle next to me. It was a day that was partly sunny and partly cloudy, you were wearing your hand-made Panama hat, decorated with some memorial dried branches and leaves that you collected from the path on your last jog before you moved in to your new house. Finally we could make use of this interview as the reason to have a good chat.
From a flight attendant to a milliner, and then returning to settle after backpacking around the world. The next thing was moving from Pui O to Mui Wo, putting an end to being a full-time milliner, instead to work with her husband managing their wine shop together, at the same time selling hats that are owned by the landlord. She would only take care of her bespoke order or project requests in her own good time.
Their current wine shop “Leeder Quay” was formerly a shop which mainly sold hats named “Duk Kee”. So here is how the story goes: Bess received a collaboration from Aesop last year, in which she had to prepare 80 sets of materials for their hat-making workshop within two weeks. Due to the epidemic, it was impossible to order materials from overseas, so she needed to source them locally. “Duk Kee” happened to be in her neighbourhood and from there she found the hats that were almost ideal, in terms of quality, which she could use for dismantling and reassembling. That was the time that tickled “Duk Kee” owner’s curiosity about this regular customer, out of nowhere he asked Bess one day, “Since you like hats so much, and I am busy taking care of my grandchildren, I don’t have much time to manage the shop now, are you interested to cooperate?”
“Now my daily routine is to make breakfast after getting up, and then I will see if I receive any request for making hats. In the afternoon, I will ride my bike to the wine shop and work there. There are only about 5 hours I could spare in a week to make hats…” That is how Mr. and Mrs. Leeder’s life changed fortuitously.
“Making hats is a kind of cogitation for me now. It is because I need to focus on the business of our wine shop, I have to chat and mingle with different customers every day, only when I make hats I can calm myself down and have a conversation with myself. Through the process of making hat, I realized that the more I wanted to cut corners and skip steps, the more trouble I would bring to myself, hehe!”
Bess recalled that due to her job nature, she flew to the UK quite frequently. From there she observed a culture of wearing hats among the locals, and was captured by those gorgeous fascinators from the Royal Ascot which took place on the racecourse, so she tried to play around with it and found that it was not that difficult to handle. Imagine there were 4 flights flying to the UK every month, and she would stay there for 2 days each time she flew, since then, as soon as the plane landed, she would hurry to the hotel to freshen up, get some breakfast and then rush to the hat-making class.
Starting from 2011, Bess began her millinery learning from Judy Bentinck to Prudence Millinery in London. She had also visited Kyoto, Mexico, Bolivia, and Ireland to study. Some short courses she studied for 5 or 6 hours in two days, a longer course she had studied was a Summer course in London College of Fashion, which lasted for 2 weeks. Unfortunately, her last flight assigned by her company had put a stop to her 5 years of on and off millinery learning.
The greatest regret was that she had not taken any photo with Prudence who had inspired her the most. This Vivienne Westwood appointed milliner had unlocked the rebellious potential within Bess in her creation, showing her that perfection does not necessarily represent by straight lines and smoothness.
“I remember that time I was making a hat for my own wedding photo shoot and while I was really enjoying and appreciating myself, she came over to squeeze it and made it wrinkled. I wondered massively why she would do that. However, after I finished making the hat, I looked at it carefully and I could finally comprehend that kind of refined yet wrecked beauty.”
“Every time I would bring with me a hat that was a custom order from my client to my class, so I could learn the technique and make it at the same time. Just when I got anxious because of the tight schedule, Prudence reminded me to make my own hat first, “because this is the memory between you and me.”. I couldn’t hold my tears when I heard this because it really struck my troubling knot.” With the birds chirping outside her shop, Bess took a trip down to her memory lane on such a sincere conversation with Prudence.
Bess and I met 7 years ago because of XiaoShiGuang, a local shop that has always supported local fashion crafts. We work hard and grow together, appreciate and support each other. In addition to making hats, she and her husband spent several years backpacking to over 80 places had me fascinated. In a 30-liter backpack, stored her 6-month cycle of basic living essentials, plus ten sets of outfits, no facial treatment. Releasing any material desire, she still walked around the world with elegance. They shared their exciting, wondrous experiences and humble way of living during their trip on their page The Wander Leeders. I wonder which place to her was the most profound?
“Bolivia, where every woman wears a traditional Bollar hat, with colorful scarf and no casual wear.” Bess was so keen that she grasped the last few hours before leaving, relying on the Spanish she got from Google translate, she went into a market to ask around where could she find a hat maker, eventually she found an uncle who sells hats. Since he had never met such a hat enthusiast before, that uncle only charged her the price of an ordinary hat and hastily taught her how to make a traditional hat in only three hours.
So what does hat in general mean to you if I may ask? Bess : “It completes my identity. My husband would often proudly introduce me to his friends that his wife is a milliner. Every time I wear a hat seeing any neighbour at the pier, they will always give me that look, like they are recognizing me “This is Bess.”.”
Bess感恩天賦造帽的天份，她鼓勵幸運有天份的人 —— 如設計師和工藝師們，都應以自己的才藝為世界帶來更美好的東西，教學也好、創作也好，所以她近年也會盡量物盡其用，以改造方式來創作，好像她剛為樂隊RubberBand的演唱會完成了一系列的Maly hats，設計意念來自一首歌《每道微小》，MV裡面的Maly elephant（顯微象）提醒了Bess十幾年前買下的一個還未用上的Maly hat block，打開工作室的抽屜，在用剩的材料中揀選適用的素材，把碎片迸發出偉大，即使遇上告急，危難狀態，在不眠不休的縫紉後，做成最關鍵那板塊。
Bess is grateful for her hat-making talent. She encourages people who are lucky enough to have this advantage, such as designers and craftsmen, to make use of their gift to bring beautiful things to the world, whether through teaching or creating. Given to such a cause, she will try her best to fully utilize any material on hand, with a transformative twist in her recent creations. For instance, she had just completed a series of Maly hats for the concert of a local band, RubberBand. The design idea came from a song “Each Tiny Effort” sung by the band, that Maly elephant appeared in the music video reminded Bess of a Maly hat block, which she had bought more than 10 years ago and never been used. So she selected some suitable materials from the leftovers in the drawer of her studio, put the bits and pieces together and turned them into greatness. Even though the situation was under a state of emergency and distress, after a sleepless night of continuously sewing, that series of hats became the most critical piece in the concert.
We all believe in every little thing, every little thought of kindness, just as the lyrics say:
“Even though it is tiny, it is not a futile slack,
All have their functionality assigned, with hidden surging power,
When gathered and unleashed in full, the force can fight against enemies. “