We Have One Bad Haircut to Thank for the Brilliance of Eugenia Kim

The hat designer reflects on 20 years of boundary-pushing millinery with a limited-edition retrospective collection at Barney’s.

After an attempt to cut her own hair went awry, Eugenia Kim was left with a shaved head and, unbeknownst to her at the time, a new career. It was the late nineties and, for a fashion-crazed downtown girl like Kim, the headwear options were bleak, skewing more ladies-who-lunch than late night at the Palladium. Having once taken a hat-making class, Kim whipped up a chapeau of her own: a felt cloche cut to resemble a paper doll’s hair. That style and 19 others are part of a retrospective collection celebrating 20 years of Kim’s thoroughly modern millinery, launching at Barney’s on August 20. The range is a shoppable scrapbook of Kim’s professional milestones: the feathered mohawk she created for a David LaChapelle photo shoot, the leather newsboy cap sported by Janet Jackson and Britney Spears, the trompe l’oeil ashtray fascinator she wore to accept the CFDA award for Best Accessories Designer. Each embodies the ethos that has guided her designs from the start: “[It’s] the first thing someone sees,” she says, “so a hat has to have personality.”

Below, the designer shares her favorite memories (and a few personal Polariods) of creating the collection over the past two decades.

“I’ve always been a hat person because they’re a really individualistic accessory. I grew up in the most conservative environment, so I’d wear things like a twenties flapper baubled headpiece. I looked like a Ziegfeld girl with these big turquoise beads, and I’d be wearing that to a frat party at Dartmouth. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“My first job out of school was working as an editorial assistant at Allure magazine. At Allure, everyone was really obsessed with makeup but I was never very good with the application. So, to me, hats are another kind of cosmetic—they accentuate and frame your face, like eyelash extensions.”

“I’d done an interview with The New York Times and they’d asked where my collection was available for purchase. I’d met with Barneys and they said they were interested, which I assumed meant they were going to place an order. The buyer at Barneys saw the story and called me immediately like, ‘I need to get these in the store ASAP’. It took me all summer to make them twenty hats. I was so dumb: I packed each hat individually in twenty huge boxes. I wound up renting a limo to bring everything from my apartment to UPS.”

“In the beginning, I was doing everything out of a two-bedroom storefront in the East Village that was also my apartment. Eventually I hired interns to help me, so I’d fold the bed up into a futon and we’d be in the back making hats. If a customer came in, the girls would run up to deal with sales. Everyone did everything—sew and sell.”

“I love puns and, visually, I love Surrealism—seeing mundane objects in a different context. I often used to walked through the section of the Bowery with all the restaurant supply stores. They had this plastic food—what Chinese restaurants might use as a display. I started to think how I could recreate those as hats. Sushi is a little cuter than having a steaming bowl of General Tso’s on your head. Then I created the Wonderbread for a trip to Paris, as a joke like ‘I’m the toast of Paris.’”

“I got to know David LaChapelle through the stylist Patti Wilson, who did a lot of work with him. His studio was really close by my apartment so Patti would come by—I could hear her coming up the stairs with her tiny dog yap-yap-yapping away—and tell me what they were looking for. Sometimes he’d show me a tear [sheet] of something that was his inspiration or Patti would see something in my collection and be like ‘Can you do this but reeeeeeally big?’” This piece [designed for a LaChapelle story in Italian Vogue] came about because I’d found these long feathers and got obsessed with the idea of using them to create a mohawk.”

“J.Lo’s stylist Andrea Liberman came into my store in the early 2000s and kept ordering this floppy-brimmed hat in different colors. Then J.Lo wore it to the VMAs and all of a sudden I got dubbed the celebrity milliner. Britney and Christina started wearing these newsboy caps and Lisa Bonet wore a cowboy hat in High Fidelity. Joe Zee, who actually gave me my first editorial when he was at W, once called and said he needed crazy hats for some fashion movie he was working on. I didn’t think anything would happen with them. Then I was watching Zoolander and was like ‘Oh! This is the movie!’ Owen Wilson, Milla Jovovich, and Ben stiller each wore one.”

“I’d been wanting to incorporate words onto hats but in a way that isn’t as casual as a T-shirt. I was making a sunhat and thinking about who wears a hat with a seven-inch brim. It’s kind of like, ‘Back off.’ I wanted to say that in a more elegant way, [so I came up with] Do Not Disturb. My sales team didn’t think it’d sell and we thought about editing it out of the collection. Then it hit Instagram, went viral, and we sold out in a week.”

“I’ve done things for Beyoncé a million times. it’s always last minute, like, ‘Can I get seventy-six berets for Coachella by tomorrow?’ The day after Beyoncé wore one of my berets to the Grammys, Kate Middleton wore one of my beanies. It was this funny kind of race to see which would sell out faster. I think Kate’s a bit more relatable … not everyone sees herself as a diva.”

(Photos: Courtesy Eugenia Kim)

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