PYT: Gigi Burris and Milano Unica

Meet the young New Yorker modernizing millinery one feather at a time

One of the world’s most prestigious textile fairs, Milano Unica showcases the best of Italian-made textiles. Last month, the fair partnered with the CFDA to take three emerging American brands and Fashion Fund grads—Ryan Roche, Orley, and Gigi Burris—to Italy, where they were introduced to renowned fabric mills that work with many of the fashion industry’s most influential and storied houses. “Young designers represent the future of fashion, and Milano Unica is eager to support them through the opportunity to establish direct and privileged contacts with the best high-end textile and accessory companies in Italy,” Milano Unica’s president, Ercole Botto Poala, told Fashion Unfiltered of the Fabric Program. “The partnership with CFDA is a win-win collaboration for both Italian companies and American designers,” he continued. “This is particularly true for Italian mills that can show and share their invaluable heritage and knowhow, as well as the innovative technologies they are developing every season.” Here, we bring you the tale of Gigi Burris and her feather-filled Italian adventure. And don’t miss our features on her fellow Milano Unica talents, Ryan Roche and Orley.

History and craftsmanship both play a huge role in milliner Gigi Burris’ work, so the opportunity to travel through Italy and collaborate with the country’s premier trimmings manufacturers was somewhat of a dream come true for the young New York-based talent. In addition to a 142-year-old ribbon factory that Burris will has partnered with for custom, branded hat bands, the milliner was particularly tickled by a family-run plumier located just outside Florence. “I love feathers!” she gushed. “I use them so much in my work, and they’re so emotional and close to my brand, so to be able to go to a place like that…I literally had physical reactions because I was so excited. They had machines that were fluffing feathers, curtains of ostrich plumes, and the finest marabou that I’ve ever seen. It was so fabulous,” Burris continued, adding that, when she arrived, she watched artisans adorning pair of Giuseppe Zanotti shoes by hand.

“My collection is made in New York, and that’s very dear to my heart—I hope to always have that label,” Burris noted. “But there are certain things that are specifically made in Italy that are never going to happen in New York. We have great places in New York that sell feathers, but in Italy, there was a quality that I’ve never had access to. There’s development happening there, and we were able to create our own colors, tussles, and trims—that just doesn’t exist anywhere else.” Needless to say, you can expect Burris’ forthcoming collections to be chock-full of feathers. 

Burris, a slim, blond twenty-something with Floridian roots, initially studied ready-to-wear when she landed at Parsons the New School for Design, but during a semester spent in Paris, her passions shifted. “I really fell in love with the idea of craft, and we went to these amazing vintage millinery shops. With all the ribbons, buttons, and feathers, the hats had such an emotional pull on my heart.” Millinery became somewhat of a respite for Burris, as she’d dive into hatmaking when her ready-to-wear studies became stressful. “It made me so happy because I felt so creative, and I had so much control. You can really use your hands when you’re making a hat,” she said. The up-and-comer completed her studies in ready-to-wear, but each look from her graduate collection was topped with a chapeau, and it was those pieces that really caught people’s attention. In fact, Rihanna wore one shortly after Burris’ 2009 thesis presentation, and after a stint freelancing and taking custom orders from editors and private clients, Burris launched her wholesale business in 2011.

Millinery isn’t an obvious path for any designer, much less one who’s based in New York—a city that thrives on commerciality and all things new. But Burris had a knack for headwear from a young age. “Hats provide an incredibly emotional experience—they’re the most transformative accessories,” Burris explained. “And I always loved headwear when I was little, like, I would wear headbands and make myself hats, or have kooky magoo hair accessories for Homecoming.” 

Today, Burris’ accouterments—many of which are handmade in her downtown Manhattan apartment-cum-studio—are more subversive sophisticate than “kooky magoo.” There’s a playful innocence to Burris’ wares, but they are often also irreverent or even sinister. For instance, one of her signature styles—a headband that uses a 100-year-old couture millinery technique—features goose feathers twisted into what look like thorns or barbed wire. Her fur Mohawk hats are a punky favorite, and her Anna Cap—a black, velvety number that is one part equestrian, one part streetwise sweetheart—was recently worn by Taylor Swift. Even Burris’ more traditional styles (she made over two dozen hats for this year’s Kentucky derby) have edgy, updated elements—exaggerated brims or crowns, a slightly altered shape, an intricate fur or feather detail—that appeal to style-savvy modern women and traditional hat fans alike.

Currently stocked by Neiman Marcus, The Webster, Colette, and, among many other stores, Burris’ brand is steadily growing, as is her industry cred—the milliner is up for a 2016 CFDA Swarovski Award for Accessory Design. Hats off to that.

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