Ailie Miller & Dolly Vardin

1976-2015 (label)

In 1976, with the New Zealand hat trade on the verge of collapse, Ailie Miller ambitiously embarked on a career as a milliner in Christchurch. Like Stephen Jones, the internationally renowned British milliner whom she greatly admires, she had the ability to surprise and amaze. Her artistic creations quickly found favour with the fashion cognoscenti.

Ailie inherited her flair for fashion from her mother. "Before coming to New Zealand in 1949, we lived in India. My father was in the British Army and my parents led very social lives. My mother was always beautifully dressed."

Although she received no formal millinery training, Ailie had enjoyed designing and making things since she was a child. After reading a magazine article about remodelling old hats, she dismantled her own hats and restyled them into the disco hats popular in the 1970s. What began as a hobby developed into a part-time and then a full-time business.

An advertisement for millinery equipment, placed by Ailie in the Christchurch newspapers, resulted in dozens of replies from retired milliners. Not only did they have hat-blocks, materials and trims for sale, they generously offered to share with her the tricks of the trade. Sourcing vintage straws, felts, feathers, beads, braids and ribbons from old millinery workrooms, retired milliners, second-hand shops and garage sales was a practice Ailie continued throughout her career. Her use of the rare and beautiful was one of the things that set her hats apart. Amongst a garage-lot of equipment she purchased from Knight’s Millinery, when the Christchurch company closed down in 1984, Ailie remembers diamante buckles and other exquisite hat ornaments. "You just couldn’t buy things like that new anymore."

Photographed in her Auckland studio in 1998, Ailie Miller wears a hat that took her six hours to make. It reflects the then current trend for beading and fringing.

The decision to call the label Dollie Vardin was made by Ailie and her then partner Carol Traise. "Originally there were two of us making hats and Carol remembered an auntie who had a millinery business called Dollie Vardin. It had an old-fashioned feel that seemed right." Co-incidentally, a Dollie Varden – spelt with an 'e' – is also a shallow-crowned straw hat trimmed with flowers and ribbons. It was named after the heroine in the Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge.

Ailie describes her first shop, upstairs in Shand’s Emporium, an historic wooden building in central Christchurch, as looking like "a little boudoir, decorated with black lace and Tiffany-style lamps." As well as making hats to order and wholesaling to a few selected stores around the country, she was also kept busy designing hats for photoshoots in Fashion New Zealand (later Fashion Quarterly) magazine, founded in Christchurch in 1980 by Don Hope and Paula Ryan. "Paula would send sketches of the proposed photoshoot," says Ailie, "and I would do the hats to suit." The relationship, which continued well into the 1990s, proved mutually beneficial to both parties.

Dollie Vardin 1940s-style chimney hat designed by Ailie Miller for 20-page fashion spread ('To The Manor Born'), Fashion Quarterly, Autumn 1989.

Picture-hats trimmed with spirals of needle-thin straw worked into flowers or bows. Head-hugging cloches. Sequinned pillboxes. Saucer hats, tricornes and boaters. Slouchy velvet berets. Toques draped into towering turbans. Bowlers rendered romantic with spotted veils. Coolie hats in shiny plaited straw. The millinery equivalent of haute couture, Dollie Vardin was never intended for the mass market. Each hat was a statement of Ailie Miller’s consummate style. Her ideas came mainly from her own imagination but, if requested by a client to make a copy of an existing style, she was happy to oblige. "In the 1980s, I would sometimes be asked to make hats like those being worn on the TV 'soaps' Dynasty or Dallas. I never watched soap operas so I had to change my viewing habits, in order to see what the hats looked like."

As with haute couture customers, Ailie’s clients went for fittings. She remembers some of them sitting in front of a mirror for over an hour, considering whether a hat suited them or not. Constructing a couture hat could take up to 12 hours, particularly if it was made of straw and had to be dyed to match a client’s outfit. Getting the right colour match was a time-consuming process, one that Ailie perfected. Another material she used a lot, a loose mesh called sinamay, needed lacquering before it could be blocked. She says she often worked 12 to 16 hour days. "I worked very hard but I enjoyed it. It was a labour of love."

Ailie Miller in her Christchurch boutique in 1988, holding her 'lettuce hat', a crinoline straw cartwheel embellished with bands of green vintage Swiss straw braid.

Ailie also made hats for fashion shows. Designed to complement the creations of noted Christchurch designers Barbara LeeGaye Bartlett and Rosaria Hall, and those of Nita Henry and John Juriss when they entered the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards, the runway hats generated a more wide-spread interest in her work. After moving the business to Auckland in the 1990s, movie-makers, theatre companies and advertising agencies came calling. "There was a lot of money around, then," she says wistfully. "I even designed hats for an opera. Those opportunities simply don’t exist today."

At the Kiwi Lager Canterbury Designer Collection fashion show in Christchurch in 1988, Kirsteen Price models a tulle hat by Dollie Vardin and a satin evening dress by Rosaria Hall (on left).

Latterly, Ailie worked from her home in Auckland. Although she lightened her work-load considerably, she still rejoiced in her craft. One of her last assignments was a commission from Francis Hooper to make hats for the World sequence in a L’Oreal Colour Trophy Awards fashion show. "They were fantastical creations," she says. "Absolutely enormous. Making them took a lot of ingenuity – and a lot of Number 8 fencing wire!"

An inveterate hat-wearer herself, Ailie ascribes her life-long love of hats to their ability to transform an outfit or a person. "They can make a boring suit or dress look fantastic, and  ordinary people look extraordinary."

Ailie Miller has now handed over the tools and trims of her trade along with the Dollie Vardin label to Dawei Zhang.

Text by Cecilie Geary. Banner image by Euan Sarginson © Fashion Quarterly.

Last published September 2014.

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