Bernstock Speirs Interview

The duo talk to us about the hat label's thirtieth anniversary

Rob Greig

Milliners Paul Bernstock and Thelma Speirs talk to Zena Alkaya about thirty years of hat design, why they think 'hats are like drugs', and their exhibition at Fred Gallery.

There were classic flat caps at Burberry, oversized creations at Marc Jacobs and feather-adorned peaked helmets at Roberto Cavalli. In fact, the latest autumn/winter shows saw a legion of designers reignite interest in the much-sidelined hat. Intriguing headgear was a trend across spring/summer too, with millinery maverick Philip Treacy breaking a ten-year catwalk hiatus, while a clutch of new milliners made their mark.

Thelma Speirs, one half of hat label Bernstock Speirs, isn’t remotely surprised by the resurgence. ‘Hats tend to make a comeback in times of recession,’ she says, hand-rolling a ciggie in her Brick Lane workshop. ‘People want to spend what money they have on something that makes them feel good. It’s kind of like drugs.’

If hats are, indeed, like drugs, the work of Speirs and her design partner Paul Bernstock could be classed as psychedelic. Of the iconic hats they’ve designed over the last 30 years, two bookend their output succinctly: the topless, hair-fountain number donned by Kylie on the cover of her debut album in 1988; and the playful 2010 bunny cap seen atop celebs including Tilda Swinton. In between, Bernstock Speirs has decorated the heads of Jimmy Somerville, Karl Lagerfeld and Victoria Beckham; and collaborated with designers such as Peter Jensen, Richard Nicoll and Jean Paul Gaultier. Despite the stellar CV, however, the pair behind the label remain true to their DIY roots.

‘We started out at a time when people wanted to dress up, but had nowhere to buy hats,’ says Bernstock, referring to the 1980s when the duo met against a backdrop of recession and to a soundtrack of the New Romantics. They – like most of the art school crowd – spent their nights negotiating Steve Strange’s only-the-glam-get-in door policy at London’s underground nightclub Blitz, and found inspiration in the creative attitude of the glammed-up kids. ‘Our first hats were totally homemade – we had no millinery experience and were literally moulding hoods over the kettle,’ says Bernstock. ‘But right from the beginning it’s been about making hats for people to wear, not just to showcase as sculptural pieces.’

That said, the label is making an exception by celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with a retrospective exhibition of their work starring dozens of their hats, celeb photography, archive sketches and designs. The work will demonstrate Bernstock Speirs’s continued dedication to wearable, affordable hats that fuse utility with glamour. It could also serve as a historic snapshot of the changing attitudes to donning a head-topper.

‘We took a bit of a step back from millinery in the 1990s,’ admits Speirs. ‘Fashion just went a bit weird and minimalist, and people weren't wearing hats.’ ‘More recently, we’ve been feeling excited again,’ chips in Bernstock. ‘We really got going again around 2005 – hats weren’t in the mainstream then, but we felt it was going to happen and we’re so glad it has.’

‘Bernstock Speirs 30’ is at Fred Gallery from Wed Nov 14-Nov 24.