The craftsmanship of hat-making at Maison Michel is constantly evolving with French creative director, Priscilla Royer at the helm of the house. She speaks to FAQ about the balance of risk-taking and why a hat is more than just an accessory.
It is a mellow Monday morning in Paris — a scene out of a Victor Hugo poem. It is a forty-five-minute commute from Ségur Metro station to Aubervilliers, where Maison Michel’s design studio is based.
Coming out of Aubervilliers Metro station, it feels like I am stepping into Algeria, from the various Arabic accents and dialects surrounding me. Women in hijabs are crossing the streets in vibrant trainers whilst holding up their abayas; whilst the men and young boys are standing in Ferrari t-shirts and sandals.
The walk to the Maison Michel atelier is ten minutes, and on the way I am accompanied by the smell of shawarma and the graffiti on the walls.
The gates outside Maison Michel are matte black. I am buzzed in by a group of friendly faces on their way back from lunch. The waiting area is shared with a kitchen where there is a brown leather sofa that I sat on. As everyone walks past, they greet me using eye contact and ask if I would like something to drink. The walls are white and the floor is clean, a subtle reminder that this is a company owned by Chanel. A woman walks in from outside and greets me with a handshake, I introduce myself and presume she is Kety, whom I have been emailing, but it turns out to be Pricilla Royer.
Royer is completely unrecognisable from the photos I found when researching her. She is five foot six with light dusty brown hair, cut in the style of a pixie like Jean Seberg — no platinum blonde hair like the ones on Google images. She tells me this is her trick now days, people are always expecting someone else.
She is wearing a soft grey jumper, matched with an argyle scarf. There is an impalpability about her style — lying between tender art-lover and French intellect. Her kindness towards her team tells me that she is very maternal. Royer grew up in the French country side with her family, revealing that she always had a very strong bond with her sister. The Royer sisters always knew they wanted to do something together, because “it is something we had always said from a young age.”
Piece D’anarchive, a niche Parisian label dedicated to knitwear, was formed from passion and not from a gap in the market, “we didn’t think anything was missing, we just wanted to talk about knitwear and to make it a key piece of your silhouette,” Royer says, “the knitwear piece would be the star piece of your whole silhouette and it would make everything less interesting, that was the starting point.”
“It was wonderful to be honest because I would start a sentence and she would finish it and the other way around,” Royer says about working with sister. Alongside creating the collections, the sisters modelled them too. Tim Blanks for Style.com said, “the Royers are surfing their own vague in French fashion,” before adding that their Spring 2014 ready-to-wear “certainly made for a memorable and enlightening alternative to catwalk convention.”
In 2014, the sister-duo closed down the label, despite the commercial success because they were not “sharing the same vision with the partners at the time. It was normal for us to leave the whole thing because if its not who you are or if it doesn’t go where you want it to go then there is no point.”
Royer was appointed the role of creative director in 2015. She previously held the same title at Vivienne Westwood’s Red Label. Her role at France’s most luxurious hat-wear company is to help sustain the reputation, and to take the label forward with quality designs. A Maison Michel hat is particularly important to Royer because it is all made by hand, hence the reason she is very close with her design team because, “at the end of the fashion cycle, what is left is a product in the hand of a consumer, so it is key that it is thought through from the shape to the material to the colour to the details outside and inside.”
Royer is a firm believer in destroying something in order to re-build it again. The biggest risk she has taken at the atelier is when she took the “Virginie, the most iconic and best selling Maison Michel hat, and cut it into three pieces with a pair of scissors and then re-stitched it. It became quite emblematic because every season we stitch it with new materials such as a plastic thread or scooby doo or bread or ribbons.” Royer’s French background always plays a role in her design decisions, especially she is stepping outside the boundaries. “I have this internal clock that tells me whether I’ve gone too far, this is not a crazy London label, this is a traditional French house,” she says about her fashion intuition. Since Royer has been at the helm of the house, she has removed all gender labels attached to the hats because she feels “it is more open to what your heart would go for, in a way I can see that sometimes when I leave models in a front of the product, men tend to go more for the women’s stuff and vice-versa, that is why I do not put any labels on the products because I like customers and buyers to choose for themselves.”
A Maison Michel hat is the equivalent to a Birkin bag, in the way that it is French, hand-made and it is always named after someone. Personality is a key part of a hat Royer states: “a person has to think it and really live with the hat. The hat is here to lift the person up.” Maison Michel hats are treasured beyond the borders of Paris, “we have a lot of Italian and Asian [customers]. Fedora’s are more for the U.S. and Italians, whereas, in Asia, they will go for the cap with ears or scrunchies with ears — more of the kawaii stuff,” Royer reveals. Last year, Sofia Coppola asked the French label for a chapka, which quickly ended up becoming “integrated in the collection,” as the Sofia. The brand’s hats have been worn by Victoria Beckham to Beyonce in her Formation video wearing the house’s straw hat.
It would come as no surprise if Maison Michel was to reach into the growing luxury market of the Middle East since Chanel already has. Royer hinted that a venture into the Arab world could happen, explaining “that other day we had a woman from Dubai and she was trying on a few hats for the horse races, she came here and was quite convinced.”