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Person to Know: The Designer Behind Chanel’s Couture Hats

By Bianca Husodo

 
Felicia Yap
 

Priscilla Royer never foresaw she would be making hats for a living. There were no telltale signs or breadcrumbs she could trail to the position she now holds as artistic director of a history-backed couture milliner in Chanel’s Métiers d’Art stable of specialty ateliers, Maison Michel. When Chanel approached her, Royer possessed zilch know-how in hatmaking. It was 2014, the year she and her sister, Deborah Royer, decided to put an end to their ready-to-wear label Pièce d’Anarchive. A mere few months later, just like that, Chanel came knocking.

“It was very spontaneous,” recalls Royer rather curtly, offering no detailed explanation. “They were interested in me for the hats, Maison Michel.”

Royer is brusque and matter-of-fact in speech. Her exterior, too, checks all the French cool girl boxes: an innate radiance of no-nonsense nonchalance apparent in the absence of sleep naturally tinted under her eyes the way overnight smudged mascara would, the fairness of her smooth bare complexion in jarring contrast to that, with lips almost just as pale, ruffled choppy blonde locks, a languid gait dressed in all-black.

In Singapore for a Maison Michel stop-over at Pedder On Scotts, the Frenchness of Royer’s being is even more pronounced. Her deft emulation of the indefinable je ne sais quoi is her province after all. It is the cord the that binds her design language: classic time-tested silhouettes made or topped with the unlikely — waterproof rabbit fur berets, felt caps with a ponytail of brocade veil, off-kilter bucket hats with plunged brims made to be worn askew.

Maison MichelThe Paulina bucket hat from Maison Michel’s Fall/Winter ’18 collection.
The Paulina bucket hat from Maison Michel’s Fall/Winter ’18 collection.

“I wanted to bring more new ways to wear hats, to just make sure that people aren’t too scared to wear hats. They’re fun but not gimmicky, it’s different. I’m making sure there’s a hat for everyone,” Royer explains.

Of course, when a multi-billion luxury fashion mammoth comes calling, there’s a solid underpinning to why it does. Royer, a Central Saint Martins alumna, took “experimental fashion design” evening courses in London, reserving the first half of her day learning from Vivienne Westwood, the British design punk icon and legend herself. In 2006, Westwood and her creative director husband Andreas Kronthaler handed over the reins of the namesake’s sister line, the Red Label, to Royer.

For four years the young designer churned collections for the Red Label, translating the main line’s ethos for its ready-to-wear contemporary. Every few months, Royer commuted back and forth between the atelier in London and the factory in Italy, zealously keeping tabs on each design and production stage, from pattern-cutting to styling lookbooks. She reflects, “It was a good way for me to find new ways to express myself, and learning how you could smell what’s happening in the industry.”

On closely collaborating with Westwood on a daily basis, Royer cites unpredictability as her most memorable takeaway: “She gives you day-to-day knowledge. She’s very critical. This punk attitude to always think outside the box. And that was what I needed at that time. She gave me the right energy to see things in a different way, with a different eye.”

Perhaps, this, along with a jaded stance towards the industry’s breakneck speed, was a lesson she took to heart. Following the stint, Royer returned to Paris and joined forces with her sister Deborah to start Pièce d’Anarchive. The duo coined the name, a self-invented French portmanteau melding the words anarchy and archive into one. As its moniker suggests, the label was positioned as an anarchist’s take on fashion. Referencing “the subversive Anglo-Saxon culture and classicism of French artisanal savoir-faire”, the label was their defiant stance against the industry’s stone-set rules. They set out to stretch and defy them, from design to distribution.

For one, the Royer sisters didn’t have a set timeline for collection drops, each year producing an average of one collection. A conscious disregard for fashion’s traditional schedule. Second, they have no qualms about not succumbing to mass demands, divulging instead on the idea of rarity. “We craved for craftsmanship, to be honest. We wanted to work with excellent workshops in Paris or anywhere in France, that was the main goal,” Priscilla explains. “We wanted to give a bit more push and twist to all these traditional techniques. We would have very edited pieces, so they weren’t big. They were just sufficient to what the people needed.”

Their dedication towards preserving French craftsmanship won them the prestigious Andam Fashion Award in 2012. They even had Paolo Roversi besotted, resulting in the seminal photographer’s continuous documentation of Pièce d’Anarchive collections.

Alas, a product ahead of their time, the label shuttered in 2014 due to differences between the sisters and the label’s partners. Out of its short-lived span, one collection stood out: the swan song of Pièce d’Anarchive. Royer herself found it to be the most striking. The fifth and final chapter for the label was done in collaboration with renowned French artist Jean-Pierre Raynaud.

“His work for ‘La Maison’ was the starting point of our collection. We knew it [Pièce d’Anarchive] was going to end, so we wanted to address the parallel between his house that he destroyed and our house that we planned to destroy,” says Royer. Raynaud’s masterpiece, ‘La Maison’, was an installation featuring the crumbled remains of the ultra-sterile-looking white-tiled houses the artist spent building for 25 years. “We kind of bonded. At the end of our first meeting, he suggested that he would lend us the rest of his rumbles of the house [for the collection’s presentation].”

The collection was a mirror of Raynaud’s work — black and white grids, matte and shine, honeycomb textures — polished sleek with athleticism. While centre stage at the presentation were 64 stainless-steel buckets filled with rubble from his artwork, installed by the conceptualist himself.

Felicia YapThe Spring/Summer ’19 Maison Michel hat installation at Pedder On Scotts.
The Spring/Summer ’19 Maison Michel hat installation at Pedder On Scotts.

This buzzy high note of an ending was possibly what reeled Chanel in to trust Royer with its feted milliner house. Before Chanel bought over the company in 1997, Maison Michel has been crafting hats for leading design studios the likes of Givenchy, Guy Laroche, Christian Lacroix and Lanvin since 1936. Putting Royer’s aversion for the traditional into perspective, the partnership may seem dubious. Why the jump? She shrugs, “When you have ideas, you can translate it into any type of dresses, coats, bags or shoes — so why not hats? I bring new ideas and new ways of seeing it. I give an eye; I’m the eye.”

In Royer’s mind is the notion of a hat, but free of constraining boxes — one that follows its wearer across his or her day with the same sense of fluidity. Versatile, all-inclusive, the pieces are tailored for no specific consumer profile.

“I started working on the materials. Working on the flexibility of the felt, the straw, and making sure the hat doesn’t bother you but is an extension of your personality. I looked at the hats in a different way, different approach. A luxury hat is a hat that doesn’t bother you. You’re very at ease and comfortable with it. It’s about individuality, personalities, yeah making sure everyone has space to express themselves.”

Asked what her long-term vision is for the brand, Royer, without a second of hesitance, declares, “Freedom.”