When someone mentions the word “artist” and the first image that pops into your mind is still some Impressionist painter with a brush in hand – please, wake up to the diversity of 21st century art and design! Talking about unique and artistic occupations, today, UNIT-E has had the privilege to interview Elisabeth Koch, the founder of Elisabeth Koch Millinery, and the only milliner in mainland China who designs and makes high-end hats by hand. The talented, intelligent, and chic designer is a truly inspirational idol, showing everyone out there that it’s never too late to embrace your passion!
Looking back at her childhood, Elisabeth says that making things has always been her most heartfelt hobby. “I’ve always loved making things, since I was born,” she says. In addition to fiddling around with a Barbie doll, she was also never afraid to “turn t-shirts into dresses, umbrellas into skirts, and ties into brooches.” However, she definitely did not tuck her talent down into her own sleeve. Instead, she was willing to spread her sparks of creativity onto others. You can always find proof of this from her childhood friends. Almost nobody is surprised that she has become a famous milliner, probably because they had been used to the Barbie-look style she sported in high school, which included blonde wigs, pink plastic shoes, and even cat ears. A Facebook friend even described her as “the girl with the funny t-shirts.”
However, Elisabeth started her life after college as a banker, not a milliner. In fact, this is not as surprising as it seems, because how many fresh graduates truly know exactly what they want to do in life? The important thing is to realize that it’s never too late to start over … as long as you start! She immediately began by watching online hat-making videos on Youtube, which quickly led her to quit her job and attend the renowned Wombourne School of Millinery in the UK. “I really just needed the basic millinery techniques,” she said.
Inspiration has never been a problem for Elisabeth. “I find inspiration anywhere. From buildings, from food, from anything I see. Even my daughter! She can put anything on her head,” she laughs. But it is when she is alone in her studio that ideas start to form more clearly, under the influence of being in the presence of her previous creations. Most of the time, clients also come with ideas, but Elisabeth always tries to add her own spin to it. Although there are times when motivation runs low, it usually lasts less than a day. She laughs and says, “My clients are my biggest motivation!”
From an outgoing teenager and a hat fanatic to a well-known milliner, Elisabeth is constantly finding her passion through her all-time hobby. Because of her determination, she has finally become the person of her childhood dreams.
UNIT-E: If you hadn’t become a milliner, what other occupation would you have chosen?
EK: My next favorite occupation, which I would’ve loved to be, is a news presenter. Well, I’m from Atlanta, which is where CNN comes from, so maybe that has something to do with it? Because I really thought I’m going to work at CNN and be a news anchor or a news presenter, I just thought, and I know this isn’t true, but I thought it was so easy. All you have to do is sit there and read! But of course, it’s much more than that! But back in my mind, I still think I can do that. Or be Oprah, or a talk show host, or a game show host! Something like that …
UNIT-E: If you could be a milliner in any era, which one would it be?
EK: I wouldn’t even know how to make certain hats in certain eras. I don’t know. Actually, this one, I like it, this [era]is cool! I can do whatever I want with hats; there are no rules now. I think back in the day, even as late as the 60s, there were certain hats that you would wear to certain occasions. Yes, there are still rules that go along with hats today, but they are far more open now. There are motorcycles or even crawling lobsters on my hats!
UNIT-E: Do your ideas flow more easily when you keep yourself busy, or alone?
EK: Actually, I think I get more ideas while I’m in my studio. Because here is where I see all these little “things” (collection of inspirational objects) that I have. For example, say that I have a wedding show to go to, and they need a lot of bridal wear. I keep my eyes open for any gold, white, or cream-colored things. When I come back here and see all of them, I start to get more ideas.
UNIT-E: Karl Lagerfeld once described himself as “the most selfish person in the world” because he puts his own opinions above all others when designing. Do you agree with this?
EK: It is true that I don’t follow trends. I don’t even follow seasons. I make hats that I want to make, so I agree with him to an extent. If people don’t like my work, that’s cool. Everyone has an opinion. So I don’t really care, I will continue to make it. But sometimes, I also make hats that I don’t even like, because sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. The hats that I don’t like, I usually destroy them or hide them away. As a designer, or as any artist, you shouldn’t take in too much of what other people say. As long as you’re happy with what you’re producing.
UNIT-E: Finally, how would you describe your job in three words?
EK: Fun, exciting, fulfilling.
To find out more about Elisabeth Koch’s work, visit her website.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Vicky Ding, a student at Western Academy of Beijing.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.
Photo by Joe Lally, art direction by Steven Klein