One to watch: Moroccan milliner Youssef Lahlou
Hats off to Lahlou
W hen it comes to accessories Youssef Lahlou may be an emerging designer from Morocco but the milliner has laid out a smooth (and a solid as steel) trajectory for his namesake brand. Here, Buro 24/7 Middle East's Editor in Chief Shannon Wylie discovers the face underneath the fedora...
Congratulations on the launch of your hat collection. Where did the idea come from and how did the process start?
Thank you! I was at dinner and I noticed this woman with a large brim black fedora hat. It got my attention! Then I started having these wild design visions and thought to myself: why not make hats more fun? I always thought hats were really cool and a perfect accessory for an outfit. So I went home and started drawing sketches. That's pretty much how it started.
Casablanca was once home. What's your earliest memory of craftsmanship and how did it impact you?
I still consider Casablanca home — I just have two homes now. My dad used to own clothing stores in different cities across Morocco. I grew up watching these amazing artisans working with passion on their craft, I was fascinated by the whole process and I knew that one day I would create a label of my own.
Cowboy hats by their very nature, were made as a byproduct of a lifestyle but your hats in particular are cruelty free and use vegan leather. Why was this so important to you?
Not only do I use vegan leather but you will never see fur in any of my designs either. I'm an animal lover and making my pieces, while respecting animals, was very important to me. We now have access to high quality and esthetically pleasant cruelty free fabrics so why not use them? I have watched horrible videos on how fur is produced. I don't think I would be able to sleep at night knowing that my hats have caused so much pain.
You're now based in New York, which is also where you manufacture. What took you to New York and why do you create there?
I came to New York to study filmmaking, fell in love with the city and decided to stay. It was important for me to be physically present while manufacturing my hats and be able to make adjustments if needed. Making your pieces somewhere else always comes with a risk — I tried and it was a disaster. Now everything is made in house. I have a small studio and that's where I work. We also have amazing craftsmanship here and I wanted to take advantage of that.
I HAD NO IDEA I WAS GOING TO MAKE HATS. LIFE CAN SURPRISE YOU SOMETIMES.
How many hats do you own and what's your favourite?
This might sound surprising but the only hats that I own are from my brand. Not that I don't like other designers' hats, but most of the hats I really like are made with fur.
You've worked with hat artisans before. What's one piece of advice that you constantly reference?
Give it time! My hats are hand blocked — it's a time consuming process. Most of the hats you see now are mass-produced but I'm happy to be part of this small milliner community keeping the process alive. My hats go through different steps before completion and you need to give time to each step. Rushing into the next one will cost you big and you don't want to end up with a deformed hat.
The process of creating your hats can take up to one year. Why?
The Lava hat took a year to be made but this is, of course, from idea to final product. You now have to wait around three weeks to get one. The reason why it took so much time is because there's real metal on top of a hat, which is really tricky to work with. We went through so many metal tests, but unfortunately they all failed. Weight was the issue, the metal had to be extremely thin. I finally made the decision to hand sculpt in order to fit the design and weight requirements.
What does your family say about your career so far?
My family is 100 per cent behind me. They always knew that creating is what I like to do the most. Of course they were a little confused at first hearing about my hat ideas, especially because millinery wasn't my field, but they trusted my vision.
I'm still a young designer and I'm just starting. It's not an easy journey so having the people you love the most behind you is priceless.
Middle Eastern designers are starting to carve a niche for themselves in the world of fashion. Do you feel that your heritage plays a part in your designs?
Before being a designer, I'm a filmmaker and my cultural heritage definitely inspires my work. In the videos that I make, or with the script that I write, you can totally see that. Now for this hat collection, I would be lying if I say Morocco was the inspiration, but for my future collections? Absolutely!
You started out in the creative industries with the short film, The Tablecloth. Now you've created an eponymous collection of hats. What's your vision for the next ten years?
I hope the Youssef Lahlou brand will expand beyond hats with shoes, bags and even furniture. I would love to do it all. I like to think that I'm an artist who can express himself thought different platforms; I don't like to limit myself.
Youssef Lahlou hats are available in the Middle East at YoussefLahlou.com.