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Jillian Wood first took up hat making while living in England and now creates a small millinery line in her studio in Toronto.

Among the many items auctioned off for charity at the Buy Design Spring Social in Toronto last Saturday was a group of boater-inspired hats created specifically for the occasion.

The seventh annual fundraiser in aid of Windfall, a charity that provides new clothing to more than 64,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area, paired five fashion writers and editors (including - full disclosure - me) with local independent milliners to produce the showpieces.

Each of the toppers offered unique twists on the traditional straw-and-ribbon style, from plastic cherries and netting in one case to a swath of Liberty of London floral fabric in another. What came as a surprise to many, however, was the fact that the organizers were able to find five headpiece designers to recruit.

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"I didn't realize there were so many milliners in this town!" the event's pageant host, fashion personality Adrian Mainella, said before a model posed in the creations.

While Toronto is home to a number of homegrown hat makers, including Wildhagen and Ophelie, the Buy Design Spring Social shed light on a new and blossoming niche of young designers. With the exception of veteran Karyn Gringras of Lilliput, all four artisans have entered the field within the past two years and are under 26.

"I think that the younger generation of designers who are coming of age in Toronto are focused on the idea of creating products they can get into stores and not necessarily creating lifestyle brands," says Andrew Sardone, fashion and design writer for Now Magazine and a co-chair of the event. "[They]are savvy about accessories and how it's a great way to get into the market."

That market continues to expand thanks to online artisan-focused shopping sites such as Etsy (where you can find Buy Design participant Nicole McInnes's one-of-a-kind Oh Dina! fascinators) and pop-culture influences such as TV's Gossip Girl (on which character Blair Waldorf completes her outfits with beaded headbands and netted caps).

Young milliners also benefit from the one-size-fits-all nature of their wares and the perception that they are recession-friendly. (Among those offered by the Toronto group, none of the toppers topped $150.)

A hat is "one of last few accessible purchases that feels special," Sardone says. "You don't have to make a huge commitment."

Neither do the designers - at least not initially. Even though Jillian Wood's mother had once owned a fabric store in Stratford, Ont., for instance, she saw herself becoming a lawyer. It was only after graduating from McGill with a degree in sociology and she and her illustrator boyfriend decided to travel that millinery emerged as a career option. In London, Wood rented a Sunday flea-market stall in the hipster area of Brick Lane to see if she could sell some of the headbands she had made on a lark. By the time she returned to Canada in November, her Headmistress line of fascinators, headbands, clips, brooches and rings had made its way to Italy and Australia. She estimates that she has sold about 150 fascinators to date.

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"A couple of years ago, there was a change in the tide of support for independent [designers]" the 23-year-old says from her Toronto studio, where she is surrounded by stacks of pheasant skins, reams of ribbons and buttons galore. "It's a lot cooler to buy something one-off - and it's made our jobs possible."

While Wood has been able to parlay Headmistress into a full-time business, others wear two hats. Lara Vincent, whose nylon-covered crowns and other quirky creations can be found at Magic Pony on Queen Street West, is a salesperson at the Betsey Johnson boutique in Yorkville. Danielle Suppa works on her line of little berets, called Le Petit Beret, when she isn't working as a creative assistant at a well-known Canadian clothing brand.

For Los Angeles-based Chase Cohl, who was not a part of the Buy Design event but is the daughter of Canadian concert promoter Michael Cohl, her line of hats, Littledoe, began as a side project while she was working on her first album.

"Honestly, it came out of boredom," says the 22-year-old, who was studying at the New School in Manhattan at the time. "I just wanted something to wear one day and I was feeling creative." Now, her feathered headdresses are worn by Shakira and appear in fashion magazines around the world. "Real style icons … always wore amazing hats," she adds.

In Suppa's case, a series of "funny little hat" illustrations she did for her senior fashion thesis at Ryerson University led to her blossoming business. "I kind of appreciated that it came about in this natural way," the 24-year-old says, adding that she now hopes to boost her online presence and expand into the U.S.



Like any trend, of course, the fondness for hats ebbs and flows, so many of the designers are already thinking ahead. Wood, for instance, may introduce some fur pieces (from vintage coats) for the fall, while Suppa is considering a line of men's ties.

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Still, Suppa feels strongly that hats in some guise or other are here to stay. "I have never seen so many people wearing things on their heads," she says. "And it's really exciting for me because I have always loved hats. For fashion people, they really are the cherries on top."

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