An Hour With ...
I met up with Vanja in her atelier in Geneva. As soon as I passed the entrance door I could peek in a flourishing backyard: a real haven of peace. That set the tone for our encounter. We did not only discuss her journey to becoming a talented milliner but also reflected on what truly matters in life. Let Vanja inspire you like she does inspire me.
Vanja, Who are you? What is your background?
I was born in Bosnia, ex-Yugoslavia. I was 16 when the war started. My family and I fled and walked all the way to Germany. When I was 19 we migrated to Australia. You have to imagine that back then, all we owned could fit in a bag. When my father told me that I had to choose studies that I could finish quickly and that would give me a job quickly, all my little girls' dreams of becoming a painter or a jewellery designer vanished. I studied international business with this idea that I will travel around the world. I ended up working for Siemens for almost 9 years and did travel a lot. It was fun. Fast forward ten years, I met my Swiss husband and we decided to come to Geneva.
How did you come about the idea of designing Couture hats? In Geneva, I continued working in the corporate world and this is when I had an existential crisis. I then remembered an interview of former Siemens CEO being questioned about the habits of successful people. He responded that to know what you are good at or passionate about, you need to look at what lies on your bed side table. He obviously was reading about logistics and business strategy. On MY bedside table, you could find Marie Claire, Vogue and a book about someone who sold all he had to buy a yacht and travel the world for two years. I had to take a step back and realised that I was not going into the right direction. I had no plan B until my husband, who is a sports manager, was offered a job in London for the Olympic games. I quit my job. Once in London I knew I wanted to do something with my hands. I came across Prudence Millinery's website and it became obvious for me to do something with hats. I called her up and she explained to me that she gave courses but only to 3 people at the time and that I had to wait. Six months later, I got into her studio, learnt from her for two years and fell in love with Couture hats.
Vanja, you learnt from the most renowned and respected hat designers. Prudence Millinery collaborates with YSL, Gucci, Vivienne Westwood. Would you say you are an expert now?
Don't say the word expert too loud (laughing). To be honest to myself, out of the vast subject of hat design, I am probably an expert (whispering) in 50% of the technics. You know Prudence learnt her craft from Madame Rose, who was the milliner of the Queen Mother - when the Royal Family still had their hats done the traditional way. Prudence sat in Madame Rose's atelier for fifteen years learning and practicing. She did not have any aspiration to become the renowned designer she is today. You improve a lot by doing however I do know that at some stage I will have to go back and learn more technics. The way Prudence makes hats and the way I am learning how to make hats is very rare. If you compared it with fashion design, the equivalent would be Dior and Chanel. There are probably ten people in the world who know how to make a hat 100% by hand, using traditional tools and traditional materials. We use no shortcuts for couture hats.
Would it be a true statement to say that Couture Hat Millinery follows the true Slow Fashion process ?
Indeed and it is high time that we start rebelling against fast life: fast food, fast fashion, fast learning. A lot of aspects of my life are slow and are local. I want to perfect this slow life aspect. It might sound cheesy (laughing) but I grow my own vegetables, I make my own tomato sauce, my own pesto sauce, my own jam, and my own bread. I ride a bike, not a car. The idea is not to take any shortcut of the modern life. I want this to be reflected in as many aspects of my life as possible. In my job, what I do in a day can easily be done in 20 minutes by a machine and then it is finished by hand - this is how 99% of so called couture hats are done today. So one might wonder what is the rationale? Well, it goes in line with what I just expressed. If you use machines, you do not nurture your craft nor your soul. Making a hat is so slow and it requires so much patience and focus. You cannot multitask and this has such a soothing effect on me.
How did it feel to see your first design come to life?
It was horrible (laughing). The technics Prudence was teaching me revealed to be so detailed, everything is so small, you have to be pedantic about every single step. It took me forever. It was an Italian straw hat from Paglina that behaves in a certain way when exposed to heat and moisture. I was extremely proud though. Then, off I was to the next hat. It was a different material and whatever I learnt with the previous hat would not work. I felt intimidated and discouraged. I remember Prudence telling me "Why are you rushing ? You have to slow down. This is not about finishing it, it is about enjoying what you are doing." I learnt so much about myself through these years with her. I found out that there was this deep-rooted anxiety about being ambitious, being the first, being liked, being recognised. My next hats were much better because I did not rush. After two years of training, I thought I would have walked out with at least 30 hats, but I had finished 12 only!
When did you actually start making the first hat on your own?
After two years in London attending Prudence's atelier, we went to Australia to visit my family. There my best friend begged me to take on a job to handle a 12 million dollar contract between a big railway company and the government. This was my test. I stayed in Australia for a year until my body started reacting to it. I had a Thyroid inflammation. And then life throws the curve again as my husband was offered a job in Rio for the Olympics. This was two and a half years after I had finished my training with Prudence and I still had not had started my journey.
“ If you use machines, you do not nurture your craft nor your soul. Making a hat is so slow and it requires so much patience and focus. You cannot multitask and this has such a soothing effect on me.”
In September 2016, we went back to Geneva and I started making hats in my living room. I was all by myself, no more teacher to help me or to show me things. I started to draw a hat with a classic shape giving it a modern twist. Before starting you need to draw the wooden block that you send to a master block maker in Lutton, UK where the traditional millinery industry is. He carves the block by hand and which takes him six weeks. You have to order the material from Germany. I was longing... Since then, everyday is an interpretation of my skills, and Prudence's words come back to my mind. Six years later, I look back and think 12 hats in two years was quite an accomplishment.
Do you have several hats in the process at the same time?
Yes I usually have two or three at a time. It helps with the creative process. When I am stuck with one piece, it is good to leave it aside for 24 hours. For practical purposes, it is also handy to work on several hats. The initial process steps are as follows: first you steam the material, then you pull and stretch it and finally you let it dry and shape on the wooden block. The drying process takes between 12 and 24 hours. During this time I can start another creation. On average, I can do three to four hats per week. My only tools are: steamer, scissors, wooden block, needles and my hands.
Which fabrics do you use?
For the winter my favourite fabric is rabbit felt and for summer I love the Italian Paglina straw, which is still being produced in factories around Florence. Straw is then submerged in water for shaping, it is not steamed. The beauty of handmade is that whatever the fabric, you have an infinite opportunity of shapes.
What is luxury for you?
We live in Switzerland, when we talk about luxuries - don't take me wrong I also like them, I am not a hippy - we always talk about products: a luxurious watch, a luxurious bag, a luxurious car. It is all down to having sufficient money to consume these things. Whereas for me now, time is luxury. If you have to work 80 hours a week in a job that is not your passion but you are only doing this job to be able to afford these luxury items, then possessing these is not luxury, it is slavery. Vivienne Westwood had been highly criticised in the fashion industry for conveying her philosophy of "buy less, choose well". The thing is that the fashion industry is not just about selling a product but also a lifestyle. It goes beyond selling an item of fashion, your purchase casts a vote for the type of world you want.
What has been your biggest highlight so far?
November 2017 was the month of highlights for me.
I had this secret goal for my first winter season to exhibit in Globus. I visited them, showed them my collection and they agreed to give me the opportunity to showcase my art and sell my designs. That was between October 30th to November 11th. The Globus experience was absolutely amazing. First of all I think it is a really great idea that such a large Swiss department store gives the opportunity to small, independent designers to showcase their design and craft. I had access to a large and diverse customer base, I learnt a lot about my customers, my target market's tastes and preferences when it comes to headwear. I definitely plan to build on this experience and incorporate the learnings into my next collection.
On November 15th, I participated to the Slow Fashion Showcase, which was covered by Bolero, article here.This was the event of some amazing collaborations of like-minded designers. I definitely want to build on this experience and really drive more collaborations with designers and craftswomen who share the same philosophy.
On November 18th, I was part of the 'journey of a little black dress' atelier in Globus. We used a little black dress as a base and by using different accessories (hats in my case) we could style the dress from day to night just by changing few accessories. This was also an opportunity for me to showcase my evening wear hats collection which was very well received.
Where do you source your inspiration?
A lot from looking at people in the street. I love the Hollywood glamour, especially post war. There was less of everything and the hats were smaller. The shapes of my hats are rather classical and the edge or the finishes are modern. Sometimes, I am being asked if I do hats for horse races and I have to decline. I like the idea of designing hats for everyday life.
What about working for a Couture House?
Couture Houses either have their in-house hat designers, for example Prudence, she worked four years for Yves Saint Laurent or they outsource to their own Ateliers. Chanel owns Maison Michel for instance - or they outsource to free-lance stand alone designers. Obviously this would be amazing. I could also imagine collaborating with Swiss Designers, like Pascale Cornu, and exchange ideas. For the time being, this is not my ultimate goal as I love creating hats that will be worn everyday.
What keeps you motivated on a daily basis?
At the moment I am working in isolation, I do not have a big studio with five apprentices or anything like that. Feedback was lacking, wondering whether what I am doing is going to be recognised, appreciated. But I am getting there. My customers are amazed that it is all handmade. When a client wants a custom-made hat and is overwhelmed with the outcome, these are the moments that make me realise how unique and rare my art is. It keeps me going to see that there are still people out there that recognise craftsmanship. I offer something that is dying. Before, people would have a dress, shoes and a hat all tailor-made. They would wear this special outfit to go to church on a Sunday. Now we buy an expensive outfit in a shop, it gives us a rush for two hours and then it is gone. What has to change is where you find pleasure in the little things in life, this has to go back to the roots. I do want to master my craft, protect it and pass it on.
What is next for By Vanja Jocic?
So much and I have so many ideas....
Up next is a collaboration with 3 other complementary designers, we will host a pop up on December 1st and 2nd @ Collab Zurich - Click here for more details
Kids' and Men's hat collections are coming next.
I am also looking for a stockist in Geneva, in Lausanne and in Zurich ....
Next year, I will be returning to Globus Geneva to launch my summer collection of exclusive 'entirely customisable' Panama hats. This will be in April 2018.
Finally and more generally, my personal goal for next year is to work on bringing together a growing community of passionate designers and craftswomen (as much as possible in Switzerland) with the hope to build a supporting community of like-minded people.
Favourite online shop? FarFetch
Favourite App? Google translate 😅😅
Favorite Instagram? @thedesignfiles
Favorite Blog? Atelier Doré and Sarah Wilson
Where is your favourite spot in Geneva? Bains des Pâquis
Favourite Quote? "What you risk reveals your values"