The Milliner: Philip Treacy by Kevin Davies

Kevin Davies
Kevin Davies
69 Elizabeth Street. In the studio, London. 1998.

The beautifully crafted photographs in Philip Treacy by Kevin Davies are born of a close collaboration and friendship between a photographer and his subject — and a decades-long gestation process.

A graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, Treacy was “discovered” and long-championed by Tatler’s fashion editor,  the late Isabella Blow, who became the most high-profile and omnipresent wearer of his improbable, magnificent creations. The two became life-long friends.

Davies and Treacy’s first introduction to each other came by way of a commission from Vogue for the photographer to make portrait of the shy, fledgling designer. The shoot at Isabella Blow’s London home, where Treacy was living and working at the time, proved awkward at first, with the inexperienced Treacy and the diplomatic Davies unable to fulfill Vogue’s expectations of capturing a happy, care-free rising designer. The magazine was less than thrilled with the result, but the experience sparked the beginning of a remarkable creative relationship.

The collaboration was, at first, intermittent. Davies requested some of Treacy’s hats in order to make a series experimental rayogram images. Treacy not only obliged but came to the darkroom to work with Davies on the project. The results neatly captured the exquisite artistry of Treacy’s work.

Years later, the favor was returned when Treacy invited Davies to photograph Grace Jones wearing some of his hats. Documenting the preparations for the shoot, Davies took a less-formal approach than he usually employed in his studio portraiture — an approach he would later hone and perfect when he took the plunge and asked Treacy if he could photograph him at work.
The book charts Treacy’s evolution as an artist and craftsman, from the early, cramped  creative environment of his first Aladdin’s cave-like basement studio — where Davies captures the controlled chaos and Treacy’s ever-present Jack Russell terrier, Mr. Pig.

cover2.JPGThe book’s commentary, by both Davies and Treacy — with its refreshingly open, conversational tone — help to heighten  collaborative atmosphere. Readers share in the pair’s memories of those early days: the studio air filled with “a pungent mix of glue and paint” and techno music; the endless cups of tea; the wooden mannequin’s head on which every hat that Treacy has designed has first been shaped. And that atmosphere remained remarkably consistent even as the atelier expanded across three studio moves. (Treacy’s now in a three-story studio in Battersea.)

And Davies has become a constant in too — “never an in your face kind of photographer” — he observes from the shadows, striving to be invisible, to document the hidden world and lend insight to the intricate, handmade working process of Treacy, one of contemporary fashion’s most celebrated milliners.

Davies’ subtle approach to documenting Treacy’s intimate creative process extends beyond the studio to backstage scenes fashion shows and even client fittings. Although the results might occasionally feel ostentatious, Davies’ images reveal the surprisingly down-to-earth effort behind the scenes—delicate hats in packing cases after transportation to Paris, for example—and a kind of quiet normalcy, as with the image of Treacy ironing Naomi Campbell’s dress before the Ascot races. or Mr Pig tucked comfortably under Treacy’s arm as he talks in his studio kitchen to her Royal Highness, Princess Anne.

In fact, no stranger to royalty, Treacy designed Camilla Parker Bowles’s hat for her marriage to Prince Charles, and the book culminates in his preparations and designs for the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, for which he created hats for 36 guests.

The Royal Wedding, Treacy says, “reminded people all over the world that hats have always been and still remain an important part of our great historical occasions.”

This book is both charming, and disarming — and is, perhaps, at its most revealing in those moments that can only emerge as the result of close friendship and mutual trust: a photo made at Mr Pig’s funeral, for instance, or a portrait of Davies’s daughter Alice on the occasion of her first holy communion in a bespoke hat that Treacy designed for her. An anecdote from Davies also opens a window on the way the two creative spirits bonded: at the beginning of their working relationship, Davies asked Treacy’s advice on his first present for his then-girlfriend, now his wife. A hat made by Treacy was, of course, the perfect gift.

Kevin Davies is an award-winning London-based photographer. His pictures have been published in publications including The Face and I-d.

Born in Ireland, Philip Treacy OBE has designed hats for Madonna, Lady Gaga and the Harry Potter films.

Philip Treacy by Kevin Davies is published by Phaidon.

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