Gigi Burris was fresh out of Parsons when one of her handmade hats graced the head of Rihanna. Since then, they’ve been worn by the likes of Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Rita Ora. Gigi, peering out beneath a blue velvet brim, dips in and out of her sweet southern drawl: “I get just as excited by seeing someone on the street in one of my pieces as I do seeing a celebrity in one. I still can’t believe someone would want to wear something that I made. It’s so cool!” Gigi works and lives out of an apartment in the Lower East Side (she tells me how, when she became a finalist for the 2014 CFDA Fashion Fund and Anna Wintour came over, she had to do some rearranging), and is one of the few young people keeping the craft of millinery alive.
“I grew up up in a small town called Lakeland in Central Florida. As a kid, I loved to make things and was always working with my hands. My grandmother was an incredible woman and homemaker, and taught me to sew from a very young age. I’ve always wanted to work for myself—my father works for himself, my grandfather works for himself, so there’s definitely been a hardworking male role model in my life. During high school I came to New York for a summer camp at Parsons, and completely fell in love with living here. It’s not that there weren’t likeminded people in Florida—I actually feel much closer to that southern mentality—but there was such an energy of newness and creativity in New York. I ended up moving to study at Parsons, and have been here ever since. After graduating I was lucky enough to work with some really great stylists, which led to a few celebrities wearing my pieces. I had this awesome exposure and was doing what I loved—but still didn’t consider myself in business. It wasn’t until I started getting wholesale orders, working with a European showroom, learning the differences between export and import licensing, duties and terms of sale… that’s when the learning curve became steep. That’s when I was like—I’m making hats out of my apartment, but this is a real thing.
Ever since I started, everyone has said to me: ‘This is such a niche category. What are you going to do next? How are you going to expand? What else are you going to do?’ That kind of feedback is hard to hear, especially from buyers. Sometimes I’ll need to push the relevancy of my product, because there’s this fear that it’s a throw away category. It can get written off for a lot of reasons… like, ‘Oh, hats—whatever.’ But once it’s clear that there’s still a market for it, that people are buying hats, they feel more comfortable. It’s also tough when people say, ‘I’m not a hat person.’ It makes you want to challenge them and say, ‘Well you just haven’t found the right shape—let me help you!’ At the same time, if this wasn’t such a specialized field, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to stand out, perhaps I wouldn’t have had this kind of success. There’s not as much competition. And when you’re fighting not only for your brand but for an entire category, it makes you very passionate. I feel very strongly that this is a craft. Unless young people continue to uphold it, it will cease to exist. At least the millinery that I do, which is all handmade. It will go by the way of mass manufacturing and being made overseas, which would be such a shame. So to be one of the only young people doing it, and to be constantly questioned and hit with the feedback that ‘this is so niche’—has caused me to really stick my feet in the ground and say, ‘No.’
This is something that I believe in. I’m going to give it my best shot, stick with it, and make it work.
While my hands are the last to touch every piece, I wish I could be the one making everything from start to finish. I have an assistant, I have a factory help with production to a certain extent, and I have a few hand-sewers. Otherwise the business is still more or less just me, but I spend most of my time doing the everyday crap. It’s something you tell people who are like, ‘I want to be a designer and work for myself.’ Well, I’m on the phone with FedEx for probably an hour a day, I’m ordering shipping supplies, I’m going back and forth with production. I’ll sit on the computer all damn day writing emails and at the end of it am like, what have I done today? I’m hoping to eventually partner with someone who has that numbers and logistics oriented skill set. Because that side of things can be painful for me at times. That said, I do think it’s been important for me to have done it all in the beginning, so I have a good grasp on the business.
From the moment I set out to do this, my parents have been incredibly nurturing and supportive. My mom comes up and helps me during fashion week… she’s right there behind the scenes, helping dress the models, coordinating sales appointments. When I received my first order from Neiman Marcus, she came to the city and acted as my shipping manager, making sure I didn’t get any charge backs. If I didn’t have that support system, things would be a lot harder. You see people who don’t have that kind of support, and it makes you even more grateful. I’ve had a small amount of angel investment from close friends and family, but am on a bootstrapping budget which can be challenging. An advantage of growing organically is that I’ve been able to maintain control of my brand identity and business, but seeing other brands with disposable income can be a bit hard. It’s difficult not to compare yourself to others. Then again, if all the things I wanted had been given to me when I started, I would have had no idea how to manage them.
I think you’re given
things when you’re
meant to have them.
When you’re growing, you have to learn to listen to people’s advice, then process it in terms of how it makes sense for you and your brand. Everyone will say, ‘You should do this and you should do that,’ but you have to learn to take everything on board, then think about what part of that advice works and what doesn’t. You can’t let that pressure get to you. When you’re coming from a mindset of fear, anxiety or pressure, you’re not thinking clearly. An unhealthy mindset does not make for great decision making.
I was raised to be kind, gracious and appreciative. I think that’s so important—if you take the time to make others feel appreciated, it will help you in countless aspects of life. For example, when I’m asking my factory for quick turnarounds—if I was some nasty, demanding bitch, that probably wouldn’t go down so well. If you treat people well and are grateful, from your production tier to your editorial relationships, people will want to do things for you. I was given the advice early on to invest in my relationships with people. It’s not only about building a big network, it’s about building long lasting relationships. Like, who do you really know? Who can can you call for drinks, who will always do right by you? The relationships you form should never start with ‘What can I get from you?’ People can sense that kind of energy.
While I want my business to grow, I’m proud that it’s still quite small and never want to neglect my humble beginnings. I think that’s what allows me to celebrate the small victories along the way. There was never a question about what I wanted to do, or what I was supposed to be doing.
It was something I had so strongly in my spirit, and I wasn’t going to stop until it happened.
Not to say that I was going to force it, but I’ve been very blessed with how it’s worked out. If someone had told me at age 16 where I was going to end up, I would have known that it was all going to be OK.”
As told to Amy Woodside, June 2015
Photographed by Amy Woodside