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Interview with Jasmin Zorlu, Out of This World Milliner

September 8, 2010

Today’s post is a long-overdue interview with the fabulous Jasmin Zorlu whose Sculptural Headwear for Earthlings is taking the San Francisco area by storm.  Concerned more with form than embellishment, her designs straddle the line between futuristic and classic with a twist of quirky humor thrown in the mix.  100% hand-sewn (no glue ever!) and almost all one of a kind, Jasmin’s creations are uniquely imbued with a spirit of their own.

Voted ‘Best Hatmaker’ by SF Weekly’s ‘Best of San Francisco 2009’, Jasmin’s warm, funny personality shines through in both her headwear and her interview responses below.


You’ve been making hats for almost 20 years now.  When/how did you become interested in millinery and how did you get your start?

I enrolled in a theatrical millinery class in my sophomore year of studying Art History and Studio Art at the University of Michigan, that’s when I got hooked on it.   I decided then and there that after graduation, I would move to NYC and continue studying hat making and also shoe making!  And so I did.  I ended up working with 6 different milliners, arranging an assistantship before I even left Ann Arbor for NY through a mutual friend.

Molecular Mermaid Helmet in greens & blues, velour fur felt commissioned by Erykah Badu, photo by David Bartholow

You were exposed to many cultures from an early age; which parts of the world do you feel have had the greatest influence on your designs?

Japan and Iceland have been the most inspiring. I recently made a sun hat out of jinsin straw called the ‘kabuto sunhat’, which is named after the armour helmets which samurai warriors wore in Japan. About 15 years ago, I came up with a hat made out of fake fur which I called ‘Samurai cat hat’, because it resembled both cat’s ears and a samurai helmet.  I love the simplicity and asymmetry of Japanese clothing.   Iceland has very avant garde fashion. I lived there for the largest part of my formative years, from the age of 9 to 18.  I remember being the first in my high school to wear leggings.  I didn’t really wear hats in high school, but my parents dressed me in them when I was young and both of them loved hats.

Kabuto Sun Hat from jinsin straw

Which other milliners make you giddy and why?

I love Karen Henriksen from London because she focuses on form and silhouette and is very sculptural.  She will develop new fresh shapes which you’ve never seen before.  Her ‘windswept’ collection of cut and sewn deep driver caps is delightful and she constantly updates it with new materials and patterns. She’s also used fishskin in her collections.  Any milliner who does that is close to my heart.   I also love Rike Feurstein from Berlin.  We both launched an equestrian cap for Fall 2008 which have very similar style lines, it’s uncanny.  The first time I saw it in a magazine while working out at my climbing gym, my heart starting beating a mile a minute, and not in a good way.  I was envious, wishing I were in the magazine. I love the way she displays her hats on her website, with photos of her hats on drawings of faces or paper cutouts. Very inventive.  She also focuses on form and silhouette and doesn’t focus on embellishment like flowers and ribbons.

How did you start working with fish skin in your creations, and what’s the appeal of that exotic material?

While taking footwear and bag making classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC, a fellow student told me that they knew of someone who was selling some skins made from fish. They had a handbag company. I bought the carp skins, made some chokers and sold them to a store, and then in 2002 I made my first fishskin helmet, selling it to an Irish woman who bought it from me at the Chelsea Crafts Fair in London.   The appeal of the material lies in the pockets created by the scales.  It forms a super textural ruffly finish.  People have mistaken it for everything from paper to rose petals!  It draws a lot of attention.  I’ve contacted 8 different tanneries, since it’s super hard to find from leather suppliers, and the best fishskin came from Iceland!  I’ve worked with Nile Perch, Tilapia, and salmon as well.  I just found a new supplier who makes organically tanned fishskin. They use no heavy metals (chrome tanning). It’s like vegetable tanning. It’s great to use more sustainable materials in my collections.  Another appeal is that it’s strong, waterproof, can be worn under a bike helmet, won’t make you overheat, I could go on and on…..

Cloche Helmet in Pearlescent Nile Perchskin, photo by Rudi Amedeus

You describe your hats as “futuristic”.  Can you elaborate on what design elements you foresee being classics in 100 years (i.e. sleek lines, simplicity, etc.)?

Asymmetry, clean uncluttered design.  You see it happening already in architecture.

Molecular Mermaid Helmet in Cream velour fur felt, photo by Kristin Brynne-Costello

Besides the Art Deco era, do other historical periods embody the futuristic feel you seek?

I like the medieval period, which you see a lot in sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek.  Also, I’ve been recently getting into the 1770’s, though it doesn’t really feel futuristic.

Wild Leia Helmet : Long-haired leopard fur felt with upcycled brown leather, photo by Spencer Hansen

Who was your first celebrity client?  Which celebrity client of yours has the most eccentric taste in headwear?

The beautiful singer Erykah Badu commissioned 3 of my ‘molecular mermaid helmets’ in 2003 from a hat store in Soho, NYC called ‘The Hat Shop’ where I’ve been selling for the last decade.   She walked in, saw one of the models in pinks and reds, and then ordered one in greens and blues.  A few months later, I had two more commissions from the store because her girlfriends had seen her in it and wanted their own helmets. So I made them in their favorite color combinations.  I searched online for years to find her in the hat and only saw it recently, this year, when she wore it last year to a performance she gave at a record store in Dallas.  So now I have a link to a youtube video of her wearing it.

What is your favorite hat making method (i.e. blocking, free form draping, flat pattern, or other)?

I love free form draping directly on my head the best.  You can do it anywhere, even on a desert island and you don’t need many materials besides thread, needle, and whatever material you’re using.  I’ve done this with crinoline, upcycled cashmere sweaters and, most recently, jinsin which is a grass woven in the Philippines.  You’re not limited by the shape of the block and you can be intensely creative, coming up with sculptural forms that don’t even exist on the planet yet.

Wave Cocktail Hat : Brown pleated nylon crinoline and abalone shell, photo by Tony Maesto

Do you have any pet peeves in millinery?

I can’t wear the fur felt hats that I block because I’m allergic to the rabbit hair in it.  Plus the cute little rabbits are killed to make the felt (at least they’re raised for the meat and the felt is a by-product, not the other way around).  I need to try the cashmere hoods but they’re a bit cost-prohibitive.  I wouldn’t be able to wholesale them, only sell them direct to my customers.

Do you have any dirty little millinery secrets you’re willing to share?

If you want to make a perfectly fitting cut and sewn fabric cloche, first block a felt on a standard balsa hat block, draw style lines on it with twine then chalk, then cut out the felt pieces.  Lay the felt pieces on your pattern paper and then proceed with making your pattern, doing the muslin mockup, trying it on, then altering the fit from there. Voila!  A perfectly fitting cloche.

What have been a) your biggest challenge and b) your proudest accomplishment?

My biggest challenge has been staying true to my style and independent instead of throwing in the towel and working full-time for a large corporate hat company (I only do it freelance).  My proudest accomplishment was having my collection bought by Barney’s for Fall 2003 and then meeting with them the next year and hearing them tell me how well my collection did, that it almost sold out.

Cupcake Cocktail Hat : Navy pleated nylon crinoline, black veiling & navy velveteen ribbon, photo by Yifei Gu

If you had the ability to split into two people, I assume JasminOne would continue to do millinery – what would JasminTwo choose to do?

Astronaut (what I wanted to be up until age 11 until I needed glasses) or firefighter.   I need excitement and danger in my life. Perhaps that’s why I’m seriously considering getting a motorcycle.

What’s your long-term dream for Jasmin Zorlu Millinery?

I want to add bags and shoes to my product line and focus on fishskin.  I also want to get it made for me with fair trade factories and use sustainable materials.  I want to help other milliners get their hat lines manufactured overseas.

Jasmin, thank you for your time and your gorgeous designs.  We wish you tremendous success in your business so that you never have to go back to corporate America!  Peace out, chica.

Jasmin Zorlu, Sculptor of Headwear for Earthlings


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