The woman who made Jack Parow’s iconic cap for a few years, internationally renowned stylist, mother, business woman, and local designer go-to milliner, Crystal Birch is starting the next chapter of her career in a time-warp hat factory. Her goal: to boost our economy, one hat at a time.
Photographed by Jacobus Snyman
If you own or manage a golf estate, hotel or game reserve you better watch out – Crystal Birch is coming for you. Her intentions are pure: she wants to sell you a locally produced hat. Having conquered the styling and millinery worlds, she’s now a co owner of one of the last three hat factories in South Africa. Odd move, considering the urge not to be hampered by a studio environment is what pushed her away from design towards a styling career when she started working. Turns out, not only is her new position a full circle moment, it’s a triumphant feat of irony considering she’d been turned away from this very spot multiple times.
The first time Crystal set foot in Cape Town’s Parisian Milliners was in 2004 on a class trip with the Elisabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion Design. It’s not a stretch to say the experience contributed to her decision to specialise in millinery at West Kensington & Chelsea College in London a few years later. She loved it and wanted to commission the Cape Town factory to manufacture for her. Elaine, her point of contact, was not interested. “It’s because I wasn’t a wholesaler,” says Crystal, who for the record is extremely likable: the type of person who, having just met you, will make you feel as though you’ve been life-long friends. She’s as persistent as she is friendly: “Every time I changed my hair I’d come back and ask again,” says Crystal, to which Elaine would simply reply, ‘I know who you are.’
As luck would have it, a determined Crystal would one day find Elaine out of office, meeting the floor manager instead. His advice was simple: place a large wholesale order. It was the aha moment that got Crystal her innings, leading her to place many an additional order over the years whereby she got to know Mr Harry Faktor, the owner. Owning a business at eighty five must take its toll, and a stylist life at the mercy of erratic client schedules isn’t especially conducive to productive motherhood, so Harry and Crystal joined forces in April this year. “Now is the perfect time,” she says. “I need Harry as much as he needs me. I’m new business, new vision, and PR. I’m the internet. He’s teaching me everything that I need to know for when I take over if he eventually wants to step out. I got a grandpa and business partner – I just want to give him a hug and close deals at the same time.”
The hat business, as Crystal puts it, operates like it’s 1965. When she asked Harry about wifi he replied that his wife hadn’t seen the inside of the factory in ages. Harry’s not the only old-school hat supplier in SA. A trip to a Johannesburg supplier is anything but brief. “First he shows you the old stock – the stock they want to get rid of,” says Crystal of the supplier in question. “You really have to take your time. Then when you’ve had a nice chat and bonded with everyone, then they’ll show you the golden stock.” Even internationally, the proverbial wifi signal is low. You can’t simply order new hat blocks (the metal or wooden structures onto which hats are moulded) online. “I doesn’t work that way,” says Crystal, describing Harry’s trips to London where he used to walk long distance (now he takes a taxi) to the hat block place, place his order, and return to Cape Town.
But in case it wasn’t clear, Crystal loves the business. “If you’re a hat person,” she says, “you’re a hat person.” And we should all be hat people. “Stephen Jones [OBE, iconic milliner] always says it’s the dot on the “i” because it makes it toef – klaar. It’s the cross on the “t”. It’s just as important to me as shoes.” Then there are the practical health benefits: “We’re in Africa – we have such heavy sun.” Also, “if you don’t wear a hat, you just haven’t found the right one.”
Right now, Parisian Milliners serves a group of niche clients, namely churches, schools, the police, and brands like Pringle. Crystal is working on tapping a few more niches, hence her current mission of supplying local game reserves, hotels, clothing stores, and golf courses. Ultimately, she’s looking to convince large-scale local retailers to bring their business back to South Africa from China. “People are really okay with it to buy something for a bargain. They have this mentality of bargain over quality – it’s been spoon-fed to them and they’re used to it.” The issue at hand is that local manufacture, at this point, cannot hope to match the cheap China price points. The catch-22 is that the only way to lower the price of local product is to place larger and more frequent orders.
Local design is a cause Crystal strongly believes in – her new role at Parisian Milliners is giving her a means to support that cause in ways she couldn’t have before. Meanwhile, her eponymous brand, built for a premium niche market, is small-scale and thriving. “To collaborate is absolute key,” she says. Since she doesn’t design clothing, collaborating with ready-to-wear designers is how she gets her brand onto the runway. It’s a sound business venture. Her latest collaboration with Rich Mnisi (“He’s a genius.”) birthed extra extra wide brimmed black sinamay sun hats. These beauties (“Some of the most expensive hats we’ve made.” The sheer size demands they be hand dyed and sewn, as they’re too big for any blocking machine,) travelled with Rich to presentations in Moscow, Lagos, and Johannesburg, promptly selling out.
The signature Crystal Birch hat is a beret. Not the floppy kind: hers is more structured, like a diagonal slice of the Guggenheim in Manhattan or a meticulously licked spiral soft serve. “I didn’t know who the beret person is,” Crystal muses. “Man, woman, gay, straight, big hair, bald head, young, old… I have a group of mamas in Joburg who WhatsApp me for a different colour each month. It’s so diverse. It suits everyone.” Her berets look different from every angle, and tie the line between formal and casual by being at once militant and playful.
Crystal believes a hat has the power to change your persona. “It makes you feel something. People love a hat to dress up, or for a special occasion, instead of just for normal life because they feel they don’t have to celebrate their everyday life… but they really should.”