As the third daughter in a family of four girls, Priscilla Royer not only had to deal with a lot of hand-me-downs, she was also made to dress identically to her siblings. “We weren’t even allowed to open one button differently or wear a belt,” she recalls of her mother’s strict sartorial rules. “Of course, it made everything easier for my mum, but for us it was a kind of uniform. So we had to develop our own personality. I played a lot with my hair and hats.”
Annoying as this was at the time, Maman Royer clearly did her second-youngest a favour. From an early age, Royer had a flair for accessorising – a skill that surely contributed to her landing the role of artistic director at Maison Michel, the 83-year-old Parisian hatmaker to the biggest luxury labels in the world, at just 31. Nearly five years on, she designs four annual ready-to-wear collections for the house, each numbering around 140 pieces of headwear, as well as hats for Chanel, which bought the company in 1997. This year is particularly busy as the maison prepares to open a new flagship store on London’s Conduit Street.
Royer has a tomboyish style and an archangel’s mop of blonde hair that would be best accessorised with a halo. She is, of course, a passionate and veteran hat-wearer – the first head on which all of her designs are tested. She goes through phases of favourites. “For a while it was a felt cap, a replica of a baseball cap, but right now I’m into the small-brim hat,” she says. “And also this half‑bucket and half-cloche, the Souna. It’s not too formal and not too streetwear. Everything about it is cute.”
We meet in the suburbs of Paris at the Maison Michel atelier, an airy two-storey studio/loft where all the designs are developed and made. At the rear, tables of employees are cutting, hand-sewing and finishing fedoras, boaters, berets and turbans, most commonly in felt and straw but also in tulle, leather and lace. The hats take shape in the chapellerie, a room Royer likens to a kitchen. In one corner is a sink and a funnel-shaped steamer, which gives hat felt the suppleness it needs before it is moulded around a loaf-like linden wood block, sometimes coated with stiffener and then baked into shape in what looks like a pizza oven.
Sharif, a 30-year veteran of the maison, has just taken out a freshly baked, wide-brimmed capeline in spotless ivory. It has been tacked to its block with hundreds of stainless-steel pins, the dimple in its crown weighted down just so. Blanche, another decades-long employee, is manipulating long ribbons of damp plaited straw into the circular brim of a tiny boater. The small black specialist sewing machine she is using is more than 100 years old. “We only have two of them so we have to take good care,” says Royer. “We go to auctions and buy old machines for the parts. You wouldn’t be able to make a replacement now.”
Royer knew early on that she was destined for a creative life. In her teens she decided she would move to London and design for Vivienne Westwood – which is exactly what she did. After taking classes at Central Saint Martins, she began working in the showroom at the British brand before moving to the studio, where she became lead designer for Westwood’s Red Label. “What I learnt there is that it is OK to think outside the box, which you can’t really do when you work in Paris,” she says. “That [daring] goes with the city and the culture around it. It gave me confidence.” Back in Paris she started, along with her sister Deborah, the award-winning but short-lived ready-to-wear label Pièce d’Anarchive. When it closed in 2014, the maison called.
Founded in 1936 by August Michel, Maison Michel made its name creating hats for the likes of Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix. In 1997, it was bought by Chanel for Métiers d’Art, its group of French artisan houses, and in 2006 they launched it as a line of ready-to-wear hats under the direction of Laetitia Crahay, the former Chanel accessories and jewellery designer. She created one of the maison’s signature pieces – a headband attached to Minnie Mouse-style ears.
Royer has a similar light and witty touch to Crahay, but she’s also widened the remit of Maison Michel, creating a menswear line and introducing a modern practicality to the house with the concept of Hats-To-Go – headgear that can be rolled up and put in a handbag or pocket. “A hat has to be very practical at some point – something supple, something very much part of our daily lifestyle. So now we have rollable hats, hats for the rain, hats for the sun, to protect you from the cold as well.”
The full breadth of the collection will be on display at the brand’s new London store, which opens next month. “In London, people have either an eccentric or a very formal way of wearing hats,” says Royer. “But we will also have our small hair accessories and jewellery. You don’t necessarily have to come out of the shop with a hat.” But why waste the opportunity to find the perfect headpiece? Royer says the most common refrain she hears from people is that “hats don’t suit me”. Her remedy is simple: “Just stand in front of the mirror and try on as many as possible. When you stop laughing or feeling embarrassed about yourself – that’s the one.”