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Dani Griffiths Makes the Coolest Hats in Downtown NYC

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It's time to get to know some of the emerging designers nominated for Racked Young Guns, our annual search for the country's most promising new fashion talent.

Photo via Waiting for Saturday

Among the list of those who made hats cool again (see: Kate Middleton, Pharrell), NYC-based milliner Dani Griffiths of Clyde is the tops. Her collection today is brimming (see what we did there?) with handmade, unfussy ball caps, sun hats and wide-brim Panama toppers made from natural materials.

Griffiths views hat-making as an art: "I get orders from women who are in their seventies and I make hats for children," she says. "It's not about targeting a market or making sales. I want something that you're compelled to touch and wear. I want anyone to be able to identify with it and put their own story into it. The person puts life into it."

We recently sat down with the New York transplant to chat about her teenage snowboarding years, her stint working for directional Lower East Side boutique Assembly, and that time she was a DJ. Here's what she had to say.

Your passion for design goes way back.
Being from Vancouver, I was a skier and snowboarder and would express myself on the hill. It was a very a stylized thing. Even snowboarding was all about the outfit you were wearing. My mom taught me how to sew so I would hand-crochet these hats—we called them toques. At first, I would post them on message boards—pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook—and people would actually buy them offline.

I've been selling things since I was 15. When I was 19, I started working at a boutique in Vancouver and would sell a few things there. Everything was one-of-a-kind and made out of cashmere and alpaca. I would take that money I made and buy even more expensive wool.

You're raised in Vancouver, but moved to New York in your early 20s. Why the move?
I came to New York for my 21st birthday with a friend and completely fell in love with it. I told myself I was going to move here as soon as I could. I saved up for six months and quit my job. I thought I was going to stay for three months. After a couple of weeks, I stumbled upon Assembly New York. Greg had just opened the store and I asked him if he needed help. I got hired at Assembly and I never returned home to Canada.

What were you doing at Assembly?
I was there for four years and got a real backbone for the New York fashion industry. I started out on the sales floor and eventually became a sales director for the menswear and womenswear collections.

Were you still designing hats at that point?
It was still more of a hobby. I told Greg I made some things and he said I should bring them in—this was probably two months after I started working there. He was encouraging and said I should start selling my things [in the store] and see what happens.

I learned more about the business and eventually created specialty packages and sent them to boutiques across the States and Canada like Stand Up Comedy, Fawn in Toronto, and the old store that I worked at in Vancouver. But the collection wasn't officially launched until I started making the felt hats. That's what solidified us as a brand.

Clyde eventually developed in a way that I didn't have time to work at Assembly too, so I knew it was time to make a decision and take a risk.

Since you're only designing one piece season after season, how do you keep it fresh each time?
So much of it is about the material and shape because my work is so minimal. Every season I learn more about what people want, what shapes flatter, what shapes work for people with a certain length of hair. It's not like buying an oversize dress and tying a knot in it so it fits you. It needs to be just right.

Every season the collection gets a bit bigger because I notice how specific shopping for hats is and I want to be able to give people something they can identify with and feel more like themselves in. It can have a subtle brim shape that shapes someone's face just so they can have a sense of mystery, but can also see through it so it's functional. I don't like the hat to wear the person; I like it to enhance them.

So you design them to be an extension, not an addition for the wearer.
I want them to be a palette for somebody else's story. For example, I've found certain things I like, like a scarf, and put them around the hat—it reminds me of where I was when I did it. I'll find a feather and put that in the hat. I'll know exactly where the feather came from—I'll know it fell out a bird and it didn't just come out of some plastic bag and end up on my hat. I think it's important for the wearer to put their own story into it. At the same time I love wearing things that are plain. I like it to be another shape that contributes to the whole silhouette that I'm wearing.

What about the designing hats are you drawn to?
Hats were a bit of a dying article. It seemed like everyone was wearing ball caps all of the time. I love a good ball cap, but I had this vintage, loden-green hat that really inspired me. I was so in love with it, and once when I thought I had lost it, I felt like I had lost a piece of myself.

The hat was a gift from my ex-partner—he had found it in a thrift store and reshaped it for me. It inspired me to research and learn to make hats. If you look back at my collection, there's this loden-green pinch hat which is now a staple of Clyde. It's also one of the oldest pieces and what I founded the whole collection on. At this time, hats in stores had a lot of bows and ribbons and flowers and I couldn't identify with that. I love hats as a beautiful luxury accessory but it's also totally functional.

What does your design process look like?
The hats are blocked in a factory in New York by a man who has been doing it for 40 years. I bring them back to my LES studio and do any trimmings, final shaping (pinching), and full quality control. Every hat passes through the hands of someone in the studio. The way that a person receives it is important—it shouldn't fall apart. I want to make something that people will want to hold on to for a long time especially because I'm influenced by vintage craftsmanship.

Millinery is such an old art. When I find an old hat that seems 40 or 50 years old, I take such joy in thinking where the piece has been. That's what I want people to do with Clyde. It would my dream for someone to find one of my hats in a beautiful antiques store and say "Oh yeah, that was made in New York in the 2000s by this house called Clyde."

We hear you dabbled in modeling and take on a lot of creative musical projects. Tell us more.
If I love the company, I'll still model for them. I've been scouted as a model since I was 14, but I was always just compelled to be involved in the creative process. I always wanted to get my hands dirty and not just dolled up.

My designs can also be influenced by a song or a sound. I'll collaborate with different musicians to do mixtapes for the website and I'll always have mixes posted on the website on my blog. Once I had two artists give live mix tape recordings at the New Museum and we sold them through the museum store in Walkmans with headphones. I also used to be a DJ when I was 19 until I was 21. So before I was designing professionally at all, I was making money from throwing parties and DJ-ing.
· Clyde Hats [Official Site]
· All Racked Young Guns [Racked]