By Claire Harlin
Jill Courtemanche loves stories about how her grandmother had a close relationship with her milliner, like the type of relationship a man might have with his barber or bartender. She’d visit her on special occasions, and her milliner kept up with landmarks and goings-on in Courtemanche’s life.
Wait… what’s a milliner? It’s a hat maker — and the profession isn’t just a figment of our grandparents’ stories. While some may think of the hat as being a traditional accessory that was more common in decades past, local milliner Jill Courtemanche said millinery is far from being a lost art.
“The phone always rings and there’s always someone looking for a hat,” said Courtemanche, whose hat shop, Jill Courtemanche Millinery (JCM), is set to open at 410 Cedros Ave. in Solana Beach on Nov. 8.
After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Courtemanche worked as top milliner Suzanna Newman’s assistant. For eight years at the Madison Avenue shop, she outfitted the heads of celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Donatella Versace and Princess Mary of Denmark. Then she went solo, established a presence in the wholesale market and moved to Encinitas, where she now lives and works.
Courtemanche said she couldn’t have chosen a better place to open her hat shop — which will double as her studio — than in the Cedros Design District. Being so close to Del Mar, where hats are a staple accessory of the horse races, as well as among the many local artists on Cedros, she feels right at home. Not only will JCM have hats on display, but she will make custom hats and hold classes. The studio will be entirely visible from the shop, so guests can see the entire hat-making process right before their eyes.
“I’ve found that people really love the process, and that makes them excited that I’m actually making a hat for them,” she said.
Courtemanche said one of the favorite parts of her job is establishing strong relationship with her clients. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a woman to come in for a bridal headpiece, and then return a few years later for a baby’s bris ceremony, and then maybe a few years later for an Easter hat.
“A woman can even come in to have a different flower put on a hat for a different occasion,” she said, adding that clients also return for repairs or refurbishing.
Courtemanche said she thinks her biggest clientele will be men, because hats like fedoras are really emerging as an “in” item.
“My sales for men’s hats have gone up a lot, and I’ve even started doing bow ties and pocket squares,” she said. “It’s really becoming a look for guys to get a custom hat made for them.”
She said women often seek out custom hats because they are distinguishing pieces, and most want one that nobody else has. A hat is also a classic item that survives the ages in both style and longevity.
“It’s not about young or old; it’s about style,” she said, adding that “a custom hat is always made to last.”
Courtemanche said she will have hats for every season, transitioning from straw to felt for the fall, for example, and using velour in her winter designs. She will have casual and formal designs, appropriate for occasions from an outdoor wedding to an indoor cocktail party.
“Wearing a hat makes getting dressed so much easier,” she said. ‘It’s the focal point of any outfit and, even better, you don’t have to worry about fixing your hair.”
For more information, visit www.jillcourtemanche.com.