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    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar

    “Here in Louisville, a lot of people come out of the woodwork and make hats to get out their creative juices,” says Jenny Pfanenstiel, owner of Formé Millinery hat shop in Mellwood Art and Entertainment Center. She does traditional millinery, with machines and methods dating back to the 1800s and earlier, allowing her to create custom-fitted pieces.

    ​Pfanenstiel, the official milliner of the Kentucky Derby Museum, says big-brimmed hats will always be a Derby staple. Tradition dies hard. But for this year’s collection, called “Sprout,” Pfanenstiel opted for Dr. Seuss-esque details over size. Forty models debuted the hats and fascinators at Pigment Gallery inside Mellwood at the start of March, showcasing pastel colors, tall plumes and feathers, handcrafted glass flowers and stamens, and vintage flower appliques.

    Along the ceiling of Pfanenstiel’s shop, hat-shaped wooden models stand in a line, each with a different brim. A tall, straight-backed wooden chair butts up against a black machine embedded into a smooth worktable. It’s the same basic shape as a standard sewing machine with an arm holding the needle horizontally, a knob to twist the needle and a pedal to move it. Pfanensteil says it’s anything but your standard Singer. “On a sewing machine, you’re basically sewing in a straight line. This is actually sewing these pieces together and it’s actually sewing in a circle,” she says. 

    ​Pfanenstiel uses vintage braids made of horsehair or new materials sourced from England to create hats, forming the concave base and brims with her hands as she sews. It can take up to a week to finish a hat, depending on the shape and details. “I feel like part of the energy of the people who used these machines and equipment kind of comes through when I’m making a hat,” she says. 

    A former costume designer who has outfitted Cirque du Soleil, Pfanenstiel started learning millinery about a decade ago. Now, she has sold to Michelle Obama, Oprah and Madonna. After spending time in Louisville making Derby hats, she relocated here from Chicago four years ago. 

    Though Pfanenstiel makes hats year-round, including some for people to be buried in, Derby is the meat of her business. She says she always has pre-made hats available, ranging from around $150 to $300, but custom work should be ordered at least four weeks in advance, so she can obtain materials and construct the hat. “I started Derby when Derby ended last year,” she says.

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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