How a Celebrity-Approved Hat MakerGrew Her Business From the Ground Up

Photos By Jace Lumley

Gigi Burris may have only launched her New York-based millinery label in 2013, but she is one of the most successful and youngest hat makers in the industry. Her high-quality pieces offer something for everyone, like a twist on the classic, such as a fedora with a ribbon, or on the more daring end of the spectrum, a headband that boasts fabric florals. Her creations have landed on celebrities like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Rihanna, as well as in the pages of Vogue, and have attracted a dedicated set of fashion-girl fans. But while Burris has a flourishing business, there were countless hours—and years—that went into growing it. “Of course, my dream job is to sit there and sketch and create all day but it is so far from that,” she says. “It is hard work and there was a lot of sacrifice.”

 

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Burris’s success story follows a small town, dream-big format. The designer grew up outside of Tampa, Florida in Lakeland where she always had a love for art and design. “It is a very conservative, small place. I think that growing up in a small town allows you foster a lot of creativity,” says Burris. “You aren’t exposed necessarily to a metropolitan lifestyle, so everything is a little bit dreamy.”  Speaking of dreamy: “One of my first major millinery moments was in Colonial Williamsburg. My mom took me there on a mother-daughter trip and they had an amazing shop that featured straw hats with silk ribbons,” says Burris. “I picked one out in cream and a deep forest green trim and I remember the way it made me feel so special.”

Later on, upon her mother’s recommendation, she applied to and was accepted to Parsons School of Design in the West Village, and it was there that she made the final decision to focus on millinery. Burris was inspired by the craft after studying abroad at Parsons Paris where she reveled in the beauty of the vintage millinery shops. When she returned to New York, she enrolled in a small millinery class in Parsons, and that was, as they say, that.

 

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RAD HATTER: Burris’s studio is literally filled to the brim with hats of all shapes, sizes, and styles. Her vintage desk might just be the only thing that’s not a hat. Burris wears: Express vest, denim, and mules. Top and hat, her own.

“More than any other thing, more than jewelry, more than shoes, more than a handbag, this is something that people are going to comment on. [Hats] are on your face. They’re really visible,” says Burris. “It is such a transformative accessory.” In a world where hats have become a purely seasonal accessory—who’s matching their pillbox to their tweed suits anymore?—or an accessory worn to royal weddings, Burris is bringing beautiful handmade hats back to mainstream fashion. In fact, the designs from her senior thesis project were so good, they ended up on Rihanna in W magazine shoot shortly after she graduated in 2009.

After that major milestone, Burris entered the real world, working on freelance design and styling projects, and designing exotic skin and fur accessories for Dennis Basso. All the while, she was slowly beginning to develop her business by loaning handmade pieces for shoots, a move that led to private clients and catching the eye of wholesale boutiques.

 

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GET THE LOOK, LEFT TO RIGHT: Knot Hem Top, Sleeveless Drape Jacket, Cheetah Slide Loafers

But Burris didn’t have a business background. She had honed her creative skills during her Parsons years, but actually forming a business wasn’t on the curriculum. She gained a deeper insight in what goes into creating a marketable label in 2014 when she was chosen as a finalist in CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, a competition with an advisory panel that aids in business development—something that she considers one of the most defining moments in her career. “I learned so much going through that process,” she says. “When you are that small, you are nimble, and able to change. I could take the judges feedback and just implement it. That really shaped the way [the business] formed.”

 

TOP OF THE LINE: Burris’s studio is located in one of NYC’s classic old Chinatown warehouse buildings. The original industrial elevator takes you to the roof which has views of the Empire State Building. Burris wears: Express top, pants, and shoes. Woven beret and earrings, her own.

And Burris’s business has certainly undergone a transformation since starting out. Two years ago, Burris moved her workspace from her apartment to the standalone studio where we photographed her. She designs her own line, a men’s line, caters to private clients, and designs hats for larger brands. Despite this success, Burris considers herself her own intern and knows the ins and outs of her company. She is involved in the creative process of designing and fittings as well as the more logistical tasks like coordinating her own FedEx shipments. “As a small business owner, you have to be very humble and do all aspects,” says Burris. “ You have to know what jobs people need to fill and what their role should be and what would make them successful in that role.” That said, fulfilling the nitty-gritty, non-creative duties were not easy. “It was an incredible learning curve. Certain mistakes were made,” she says. “But I think if you have a curious mind you just need to apply that to a task that you wouldn’t naturally excel at.”

 

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GET THE LOOK, LEFT TO RIGHT: Zip Back Blouse, High Waisted Cropped Pant, Crisscross Wedge Sandals

 

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DETAILS, DETAILS: Working cheeky accessories (or cute detailing) into your existing wardrobe is as easy as 1, 2, hat! Burris wears: Express top. Jacket, skirt, and hat, her own.

The philosophy that has helped her along the way is a simple, yet effective one: Believe in yourself—no matter what. When you have your own business, you have to be your biggest salesperson. If you are truly passionate about something and you don’t sacrifice on quality, the cream will rise to the top. People will take notice. Or, maybe they don’t take notice how or when you want them to, but quality and authenticity are very hard to ignore and even if it starts slowly, you will identify a community of people that appreciate it. Those are some things I pride myself on.”

 

GET THE LOOK, LEFT TO RIGHT: Minus the Leather Jacket, Eyelash Embroidered City Shirt, Linen Blend Pencil Skirt