The decision started with a hobby: When Elisabeth Koch’s Dutch father was given a choice to set up his company’s North American office in Atlanta or Chicago, he relied on more than market research.
“In Atlanta, he found the Chattahoochee River, and he thought, ‘I could do some good fly fishing there,’” Ms. Koch said.
He taught her how to tie flies with fishing line, hooks and feathers, a skill that would assist little Elisabeth in her eventual profession: millinery.
Ms. Koch, a banker by training, reinvented herself as a career hat maker upon moving to Beijing, where she has carved out a niche for her work in China’s budding high-fashion scene. Some of her hats are conversation pieces; others could pass for pieces of art.
“It’s a real niche, nobody’s doing it. I think I make hats that really stand out,” she told Global Atlanta in an interview from Beijing.
Ms. Koch has returned once again to Atlanta this month for summer hat-making workshops and high tea at her childhood home near Chastain Park, which remains in the family after all these years despite her parents’ return to Europe.
At more than 10 sessions throughout the summer, she’s sharing basic techniques and tales from her unorthodox career path. At the end of the day, participants will leave with a hat of their own making. Dates still available: Aug. 7 and 12.
Looking back, Ms. Koch sees that her life’s arc should have been inscribed more clearly: Her Welsh mother made the kids’ clothes and worked as a designer. As a child, Ms. Koch remembers always working with her hands — fashioning a skirt out of an umbrella and making her Barbies’ clothes.
But it took working at traditional jobs for years before she realized that her childhood predilections hadn’t gone away. A communications major at college in London, she got a master’s degree in Amsterdam and entered the world of finance, first at Reuters, then at Dutch bank ABN Amro. She was eventually recruited to work in Brussels. But in the staid world of business, a more colorful side was always trying to come out.
“I was still wearing red suits and purple nails,” she said. “I would come home and knit and draw and sew or whatever when I wasn’t at the bank working; I was still making crazy broaches and wearing them on my suits to work.”
A chance move to China for her husband’s job offered the moment of reflection that would kick-start her reinvention. She wanted to make something in fashion, but she wasn’t really into jewelry. Should she do shoes? Clothing? Handbags?
Then it hit her.
“I had a collection of about 100 vintage hats and I still didn’t know I wanted to make hats,” she said.
She found classes at the Wombourne School of Millinery in London. She got certified and began piling up supplies — hat forms, various materials like sinamay and wire — in a shipping container ahead of the impending move to China, where she had never traveled.
The country proved more receptive to her craft than she could have imagined. Soon after arrival, she broke into party circuit for expat organizations and foreign consulates. After one crucial “mistake” wearing a plain vintage hat, she decided that the only way to make inroads in her new venture was to wear her own creations, in which she mixes materials like wood, plastic, metal or even bamboo. These broke the ice and helped make a name for her — fast.
“I was at all these parties with a motorcycle on my head or a lobster on my head, and everybody would see me come in and say, ‘Oh my god, who is that?’”
Within months, her hats were being featured in the China editions of major magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. Later, Cosmopolitan and Vogue came calling. Commissions began piling up, and Ms. Koch became a regular at British-hosted events in Beijing, like watch parties for the recent royal wedding. There were also derby parties, polo events, weddings, galas and an array of other occasions to show off her headwear.
But much of the marketing was done for her by Chinese movie stars and other fashion influencers.
“I didn’t know that a lot of the people wearing my hats were celebrities,” she said, noting that actresses like Zhang Ziyi have appeared in public and on magazine covers donning her creations.
Now Ms. Koch operates a studio and showroom in Sanlitun, a popular shopping and entertainment district of Beijing, and she’s diversified her offerings. She rents out hats for special occasions, offers talks on hat making (including a TEDx talk) and works on displays or special collections for hotels and museums. She has a private-label collection as well.
The Atlanta dates, part of a planned trip home every two years, are an opportunity for novices to learn the basics through a session with a milliner of international acclaim. They’re aimed at aspiring hat makers from 9 years old and up. The $85 ticket includes tea, materials, a hat and a hat box.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register, and learn more below: