Chic Chapeau Couturier Cashes In On Derby Day
Leslie T. Snadowsky
Kimberly Gondrella is a milliner at Fleur de Paris, a fanciful custom millinery and couture boutique located on Royal Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The unique house of style is brimming with Gondrella’s fur felt and straw crowning confections, which sport colorful vintage ribbons, brooches, crystals, appliques, flowers and feathers.
A signature Fleur de Paris creation, which can cost anywhere from $300 and up, may seem like an indulgence, but as the 141st Kentucky Derby approaches on Saturday, May 2, 2015, the store has transformed into a decorative depot where dozens of hats are purchased and shipped daily. Fashionable ladies who plan to attend The Derby and the Kentucky Oaks expect their bonnets to stand out more than the famed Twin Spires and be more discussed than the odds of thoroughbreds International Star, Dortmund and Carpe Diem winning by a nose.
“Gatsby, Deco and Jazz age looks have been very successful,” Gondrella said. “This season has been all about wild feathers, big trim and playing with patterns and texture. Color is always important.”
“The Derby is our biggest event,” Joseph Parrino, Jr., Fleur de Paris’ owner, said. “There are at least 1,000 of our hats worn at The Derby every year and 12 have been exhibited at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. Many Louisville women come here in person to delight in a day of shopping, or they phone in an order. Some send us a belt and a shoe and ask us to build a hat around them. It’s our quality and variety that has put us on the map.”
“The hat market is cresting right now,” Parrino said. “Events are plentiful and you always have an occasion and opportunity to wear a hat in New Orleans, and buy them too.
The global market for hats, caps and millinery is projected to reach $7.7 billion by 2020, according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc., a leading publisher of market research. They found the United States represents the single largest market worldwide due to “improving economic conditions, rising levels of employment and increasing discretionary spending on apparel and accessories.”
“The fashion unlike the fad comes back,” Parrino said. “You can get a hat anywhere, but people come here for a great hat that’s unique and expressive.”
Fleur de Paris is a 2nd generation family run business that employs up to 12 coworkers. Parrino said their busy season typically starts at the first bugle call at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track the day after Thanksgiving. Business crescendos at Easter, which ranks second to sales during the first weekend of Jazz Fest, the weekend before the Kentucky Derby. Parrino said he serves an 80/ 20 ratio of non-local to local customers.
“The Kentucky Derby is like the Academy Awards for hat lovers,” Diane Feen, editor of hatlife.com, said. “On this one day of the year the head becomes prime real estate for showing off fashion prowess. There’s so much media coverage (and a hat contest), that it’s a great time to get photographed for the pages of a newspaper or magazine. It’s like a coming out party for headwear to show everyone how fabulous you look. Wearing a Derby hat is akin to a peacock’s plumage – the brighter and more beautiful, the more others will envy and admire you. The Derby is the biggest hat event of the year. Hat designers around the world up their game for this momentous occasion.”
According to Katherine Veitschegger, a former Curator of Collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum, wearing a hat to The Derby is a chance for every lady to express her inner “Southern Belle.”
“Within the seated sections of Churchill Downs….women of grace and taste sport classy, fashionable [wide-brimmed] styles. The hats can be decorated with flowers, feathers, bows and ribbons of any color to express creativity and individuality. Men's Derby hats are generally solid in color and inspired by the style from the 1920s. In the infield, the headwear has tendency to take on a zanier character.”
While half of Parrino’s business relies on selling one-of-a-kind daytime hats, cocktail hats and fascinators, Fleur de Paris also sells couture evening gowns, wedding gowns, ready-to-wear contemporary day apparel, lingerie, purses, jewelry, silk scarves and embellished headbands.
“To see Fleur de Paris through someone else’s eyes for the first time is like a ‘Wow’ moment,” Parrino said of his store’s whimsical opulence. “People go wild. We pride ourselves in providing an exemplary customer shopping experience.”
When someone buys a couture gown at Fleur de Paris, the client is given the dress pattern and is assured they won’t see another one like it. “We keep a list,” Parrino said. “We ask our customers where they plan to wear their gowns. You won’t see identical Fleur de Paris dresses, even in a different color, walking the aisles of the Endymion Ball.
The same ethic is instilled in their individual hat designs. Parrino said their vast inventory includes more hats in more shapes and colors than anywhere he’s ever seen. They offer hats in 12 different shades of pinks and purples. There’s even a K&B purple. He said their felt and 100% U.S. ethically obtained wool hats all have satin linings, and the selection is diverse enough that you can find one to wear to tea, or luncheon, church or synagogue, homecoming, a wedding, a Mardi Gras parade or a Ball.
With an international reputation and an elegant clientele, Fleur de Paris produces hats worn atop graceful heads at Royal Ascot, the Dubai World Cup, the Melbourne Cup, Royal and celebrity weddings.
“As an artist, I don't follow trends as much as try to create them,” milliner Gondrella said. “Other people's work does not affect my own, and I pay it little attention. I am mindful of what colors and prints are being shown for the season as my hats still need to coordinate within an overall outfit. Popular culture also plays a role. Last year’s holiday season was still all about ‘Gatsby’ while now, everyone is talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’”
Parrino said some of their hat trimmings pre-date the Civil War, and they like to find obscure elements to contribute to the uniqueness of their designs. He said some vintage ribbons cost up to $300 per yard.
While Fleur de Paris’ long list of celebrity clientele is veiled in secrecy, store owner Parrino did concede that Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and Patti LaBelle all owned some of his hats. He also extolled one of their favorite customers, weight loss legend, and Louisiana native, Jenny Craig. “She used to drop up to $15,000 a shopping spree on hats,” Parrino said. “She’s a feel-good shopper who believes in retail therapy.”
“I like to think of all of my hats as fabulous in their own way and all of my clients as equally important,” milliner Gondrella said. “I’ve had a number of celebrity clients over the years, and that can be a thrill when it is someone whose work you greatly respect who also appreciates your work. I am not one to gossip or drop names, but the most exciting hats to make are the ones that are going to fabulous parties and places.”
Parrino said his staff never minds coming in early or staying late to host a special, closed door, Champagne-shopping celebration. Open 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. daily, the store closes only 4 days a year.
Fleur de Paris’ pink and black lace round hatboxes are also a coveted accessory. They measure up to 24” in diameter and 10” tall and can only be obtained with a hat purchase, though Parrino said many have tried to buy them individually. The lid’s round perimeter is lined in black muslin, and the hatbox comes with acid free tissue paper inside. “We teach customers how to care for their hats for life,” Parrino said. “We welcome customers to come back in and bring their hats to add more to them, change trimmings or to take away trimmings to add to a new hat. They know how to invest in quality.”
Fleur de Paris’ backdoor advertising consists of hosting informal modeling and providing elaborate hat displays at social and philanthropic events including the New Orleans Opera Association Women’s Guild’s Mad Hatter luncheon, the Men and Women of Fashion’s Prix d’Elegance and the Chris Owens French Quarter Easter Parade. Parrino said their best advertising comes from word of mouth, and 50% of their customers are repeat customers.
Penny Hall, a devotee from Rockledge, FL, has 24 Fleur de Paris hats. Some are winter felts and some are summer straw, but she said all are equally loved and admired. “Fleur de Paris is a one-of-a-kind shop that sells one-of-a-kind hats. I love all the variety and have had two hats custom made for me. I travel a great deal and have never seen another shop with such a variety of hat styles, not to mention the thousands of different adornments that can be added to make the hat very individualized. My favorite hat would be one that was made for me, which has incredible black feathers with red accents. I receive many, many compliments when I wear the hat.”
Parrino said a profitable new trend has been the ladies 7” multi-colored Panama Fedoras, which, he said, are perfect for Jazz Fest. He said anything with wide brims that offer protection from the sun are also sought after.
The GIA market research team reports the steady uptick in hat sales is partly driven by the rising public awareness over melanoma skin cancer and strong demand for sun hats.
“People are looking for flexibility and functionality,” Parrino said. “We sell a lot of hats that offer sun protection with flare. And customers are selecting bright cobalts and oranges this year. They’re really turning up the volume.”
During the hot summer months, which is typically the store’s slow season, Parrino doffs his hat to the New Orleans’ locals offering an up to 40% discount on everything in the store. The Fleur de Paris “Friends and Family” discount campaign runs through July and August. Parrino said savvy summer shoppers come in at that time to buy their Derby hats, on sale, for the following Spring.
“Doing business in the French Quarter is a joy and making our customers look fabulous in a hat is an extension of that joy,” Parrino said.
“Hats are not just for the fashionable few,” milliner Gondrella said. “They are an accessory that is timeless, beautiful and a conversation starter. Whether you invest in one good hat or are a collector, they are an important, if sometimes overlooked, part of every woman's wardrobe. If you want to make an impression, stand out in the crowd or just look polished even while having a bad hair day, a proper hat is the trick. Well-made, timeless accessories like these are worth the price tag. They should not only fit well and flatter the individual woman, but stand the test of time, last and continue to work for your wardrobe for years to come.”
You can view some of Fleur de Paris’ Derby hats at Derby on Fulton, on Saturday, May 2, 2015, starting at 1:00 p.m. The outdoor festival, at Apres Lounge, 608 Fulton St., will feature food and drinks, live music and a grand viewing of The Kentucky Derby, the “greatest 2 minutes in sports.”
Fleur de Paris
523 Royal St.
New Orleans, LA 70130