When Janessa Leone graduated college with a B.A. in English literature, she never thought of a millinery career. It was the discovery of a hat — a vintage fur felt one in Paris — that inspired a love affair with the accessory. "My grandfather’s Italian, and I grew up wearing hats — it was just a natural look for me," she remembers. "But when everyone stopped me, it clicked: There was a void in the market."
From that first hat, her eponymous line was born. Leone dissected the topper to figure out the history behind it: how it was made, what the materials were, and what made it work. After a yearlong search to find a manufacturer who could produce the quality she desired, Leone was in business, launching her first collection last February.
Inspired by music and the muses behind iconic seventies songs, Leone says she designs her hats for girls like herself: Women who are interested in fashion and want to look cool, but don't necessarily have a lot of time to do it. "Selfishly, I design for myself and what I would like to wear. I always joke that I made these hats because I don’t like to wash my hair — it’s easy to just kind of throw them on and have a cool look." With style stars like Miranda Kerr, Jessica Alba, and fashion blogger Sincerely Jules as fans of her line, Leone has already won over her target audience. Now it's just about making a lasting impression. "I want to create things that also can withstand 60-plus years, world wars, go through different countries, and then be found in some store by someone who will be inspired to figure out where it came from," she says, referencing her own journey.
Tell us about the design process.
It always starts with the hat body itself. I have an entire archive of hats that I’ve had for years. I always just try to pick apart what makes them cool and unique. I design the actual hat body and different colors. And then once I actually get my samples, it’s very hands-on. I have a lot of feathers and leather and chains and all sorts of different things, but I just like to sit and blast some music and just create — put them together and see where it goes.
Where does your inspiration come from?
For this particular line, I was inspired by the women who are responsible for some of the classic music I’ve listened to for years. All these seventies rock muses that we have these names for like Ruby Tuesday, Vera, Sexy Sadie, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. I don’t know if it’s my literature degree , but I was trying to create different stories for who these ladies were, what their lives were like, and so I created a style for each one of my favorites songs and gave them a namesake.
Some people feel like they can't pull off a hat — is there a formula to wearing a hat well?
Well, it’s always funny to me when I hear people say, 'Oh, I’m not a hat person.' It’s such a foreign concept to me because I think it’s the easiest accessory you can wear. The most important factor is your attitude. If you’re not going to own it, and you feel uncomfortable in it, then you probably will look uncomfortable in it. But there isn't really a systematic wardrobe that you need. A hat looks great with a dress or with a sweater and jeans. Just very basic. I think that people are intimidated because they feel like hats bring along this whole persona that they may not identify with, but that’s what I love about fashion. One day you can put on your J.Crew little button-up and be a preppy Hampton's girl, and the next day put on some leather pants and a fur jacket and be Kate Moss.
Who are your hat icons? Who is the perfect girl for your line?
The ones that come to my mind would be Anita Pallenberg, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin. These very classic seventies music women. If I could get someone, the modern-day Jane Birkin, to wear one of my hats, I feel like I’d die a very happy person.
What’s next for you?
I’m going into shoes in the fall. It’s an exciting, big next step. I’m gonna get into making leather boots and leather booties. I’m catering to the same girl who would wear my hats. This is all so foreign to me — every day I learn something new. I’d love one day to have a full ready-to-wear line, from top to bottom, try to create it all. That would be amazing.