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Gigi Burris' Hats Went From College Thesis to Rihanna, Gaga

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Gigi Burris grew up in Florida with a love of crafting and a dream of attending fashion school in New York. After graduating from Parsons, she launched her own millinery and saw her hats land on the heads of pop stars and magazine editors. The 25-year-old spoke with Racked about life in the south, the importance of college networking and designing for Lady Gaga.

You're based in New York City now, but you grew up in Florida.
"I grew up in Lakeland, Florida outside of Tampa. I always loved fashion, I was the president and founder of the fashion club in high school. My mom and I would read Vogue magazine and Harper's Bazaar and we learned about Proenza [Schouler] and that they went to Parsons. So when I was in high school I went to a summer program at Parsons, spent the summer here in New York and fell in love with the school and the city, and I knew that I wanted to come back. I applied and was accepted and was so thrilled. I moved up here in 2005 to get a BFA in fashion design."

What intrigued you about fashion?
"In Florida, where I'm from, we didn't even have a fancy department store so we'd have to drive to Tampa. The fanciest thing we had was Neiman Marcus and that was about an hour away. I didn't grow up around it but I'd see it in magazines and somewhat on television. I just thought it was so glamorous and I always loved making things with my hands."

When did you decide that you wanted to design hats?
"I went to school for ready-to-wear, but in every one of my collections I felt like everything really needed to be rounded out with hats. I took some time abroad at Parsons Paris and when I came back to New York, they offered a millinery course at Parsons. It was the first millinery class they'd ever offered and only five kids signed up. You needed five kids to make a class, less than that and they'd cancel it, so we barely made the minimum. It was amazing to be able to work with my teacher practically one-on-one during that course period.

That teacher, her name is Leah Chalfen, asked me to continue working with her. I interned with her over the summer and she taught me so much about building a small millinery business. I went back to school and we were working on our thesis, which is a really big deal at Parsons. There's a lot of pressure. And I was nominated for designer of the year which was amazing. In addition to my ready-to-wear, I think everyone enjoyed the hats I had made with every look. They were what brought me the most joy. When I spoke about them and introduced them to the industry panel that included people like Linda Fargo, they saw that I really loved the hats and people started pulling them.

My first credit was Elle, that was a few months after I graduated. Then Rihanna wore some pieces from my senior thesis. It was really surreal."

How do you go from presenting a senior thesis at college to seeing your hats on Rihanna?
"There's really no roadmap from how you get from A to B. Living in New York and going to college in New York, you develop a support system of friends. They're stylists' assistants or carving out their own path as stylists, so they were aware of what I was doing. People began to pull them immediately after graduation because I was in a niche category. Hats are a little bit harder to find; there aren't many people making them. A friend of mine was working for W at the time and she pulled the hats for a photoshoot with Rihanna and Rihanna just fell in love with the hats. They called me, I remember I was at lunch and it was the summer after I graduated school, and they were like, 'Rihanna really loves these hats, can she keep them?' I was like, are you kidding me? That's my school project. If Rihanna wants them, of course she can keep them!"

Did you start getting orders after that?
"For me, the orders came secondary. I was so blessed with the editorial support because, you know, the hats are a bit weird and oftentimes hats make the picture, so it was a while before the retail support came."

And are you still producing everything on the Lower East Side?
"The majority [is]. Everything passes through my studio or is done in Midtown, which it's a process of hand-blocking over wooden forms. So if it's not done in the studio, it's done in Midtown."

A lot of celebrities are fans. How does that work? Do they send you requests or do you work with them on an idea?
"It's a little bit of both. Like I said, I was so blessed to go to school here in the city and make a base of contacts. A girlfriend who I went to school with went to work for [Lady] Gaga's team. Whenever Gaga needs something, they'll call me and say, what do you have on hand? Sometimes they'll say, we're feeling clear plastic, here's a budget, show us some sketches and we'll get back to you on what she thinks about it—and it's kind of a back-and-forth process.

I'm often working through the night because hello, if Lady Gaga wants a hat and she wants it tomorrow morning—duh, I'm going to do it! I'll get a call and it'll be like, hey, can we pick up for Gaga? You stop, drop what you're doing and make it happen."

Do you do a ton of work around the Derby?
"Well, it's fabulous. It's one of the only US events that is really hat-centric and we can go kind of crazy and outrageous. This past Derby, I did a custom piece for an editor at Harper's Bazaar. She and I met three or four times and it ended up being really cute."

Do you wear hats in your day-to-day life?
"I try! Because it's a really great conversation starter, someone will say 'I love your hat,' and I can say, 'Thanks, I made it!' It's also really easy for me because I have an entire closet full of samples. And I've gotten so used to wearing a hat when I'm getting dressed that I feel naked without it. So I really do try to make an effort. There are certain occasions where you don't want to be the center of attention or you just want to wear your hair down and then I'll put on a little headband or a barrette."

You've gotten press about sourcing alligator skins from Florida. Do you still do that?
"Well, it's difficult getting skins from Florida because you know, you do have to hunt them. I use a tannery in Georgia, they're one of the best tanneries on the globe, so it's really high quality. Recently my dad got some more tags, so the game plan is for him and my boyfriend to go out alligator hunting once the season starts in August. We'll see what they come up with."

Has your boyfriend been alligator hunting before?
"No, but he's so excited. I'm sure they'll be lots of photos. That will be an interesting bonding experience between him and my dad."
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