Milliner Gigi Burris, a thriving young hat designer out of New York City, knows that style –whether it’s an everyday look or getting ready for an adventure to Central America– always starts from the head, down. “Hats are so emotional and unique to each country’s culture,” explains the milliner who recently joined the prestigious ranks of the Council of Fashion Designers of America with her unique headwear. Now, Gigi is bringing her love for travel to life, releasing a collection of hats inspired by a trip to Panama. Revamping the country’s classic Panama hat, Gigi puts a modern artist twist on the perfect jungle accessory, all influenced by the vibrant color and culture of W Panama.
To get to the source of her designs, we joined Gigi on an adventure-filled inspiration trip to Panama to explore the jungle surrounded metropolis, learning about how the local artisans and wildlife inspired her collaboration and brought the Panama hat to new, vibrant heights.
How did you become interested in fashion design? Have you always been interested in hats and dressing up?
Gigi Burris: From an early age I knew that I was drawn to art and painting and sculpture. I grew up reading magazines and was really interested in fashion. I was blessed to be accepted into Parson’s School of Design for my BFA, and while I was studying abroad in Paris I really got interested in the idea of craft. I really fell in love with millinery, the making of hats, and started studying it when I came back to New York.
I had always loved hats and had a collection of vintage ones, always included them in my sketches, and wore them. They were in my vocabulary but I didn’t realize how much I loved them until I started making them in that class. I included a full range of millinery with my thesis and that was just the beginning!
Describe your personal style and how that translates into your designs.
GB: Anyone that knows me knows I wear a lot of black. It’s a New York thing, I guess, so there is a lot of black in my collections but this most recent collection doesn’t have any, probably because my husband and I recently went on a honeymoon to Cuba and I loved the colors. I’ve adopted a more colorized profile now.
There’s a subversive, witchy, feminine vibe with a modern and very New York element. I love embellishments – they make the brand stand out.
What is it that draws you to hats specifically?
GB: Hats are so emotional. They are so unique to each country. But there are only a few countries where hats play such a crucial role in the culture. I’m so glad that I got to embody that love of hats in Panama and create something with my own twist for W Panama.
What was the process of designing the hats for W Panama?
GB: What’s unique about the pieces we made for W Panama was that a Panama hat is really defined by what it’s made of. It can be a multitude of things but it does need to be made out of toquilla straw. When we were in Panama we actually got the opportunity to see what a toquilla straw looks like in the wild, which was really awesome. It’s from a palm frond which is stripped and turned into a fiber and then woven. What people don’t know is that a real Panama Hat is actually made customarily in Equador, but they are known as Panama hats because they were mostly sold by the Panama canal.
The weave we chose to use was a higher quality weave, a level two, so more weaves per inch. For us, we always want to use the finest materials and for this project, it didn’t differ.
How did W Panama fuel the inspiration for your design?
GB: We were really influenced by the feeling that both the country and W Panama evoked. Through the aesthetic and inspired the by local culture, we came up with three hats. For one of the hats we used an indigenous fabric that comes from a tribe about an hour outside the city called the Embera. Another hat was made with vibrant colors and painted elements inspired by Stinkfish, a local street artist. For the third I really fell in love with the tropical birds since the city is surrounded by rainforests, so we created a hat that brought in an explorer feel by nodding to a colonial shape and adding in really bright neon feathers.
What surprised you most during your trip to Panama?
GB: It was really cool to visit and make the pieces come to life as I explored this new place. I met the tribe that we used the fabric from and saw the birds that inspired the feathers making each hat unique. I had no idea that the Canal was surrounded by real rainforest. I thought it would be more industrial but there were monkeys and sloths and so many types of wildlife right there!
As a fashion designer, is there a style or a look that you saw in Panama that struck you in particular?
To see the Embera tribe wearing the fabric that we used on our hats really was amazing and kind of emotional!
What can you not live without while you travel?
I like to bring all my vitamins, especially to new countries when I’m trying new foods. Probiotics, magnesium for jetlag and sleep, turmeric to fight the swelling. I love SK-II eye masks to have once I get to the hotel. And always sunscreen!
Why is traveling so important, especially as a fashion designer?
We all get so bogged down with our mindset sometimes, it’s so important to 1) take time away from work and email and demands and 2) just grant yourself some perspective.