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Milliner Polly Singer's customers always win by a head

Before writing about hats in this Derby and royal-wedding season, it's essential to do some background research. One excellent reference for fashion and everything else is Miss Piggy's Guide to Life, first published in 1981 — coincidentally the year of the last great royal nuptials.

In her classic tome, Miss Piggy offers advice about hats that's as sound today as it was 30 years ago: "One's chapeau provides the perfect opportunity for a profound fashion statement. Your hat should not merely say, 'Here is my head.'" Indeed.

Feeling more informed, this reporter set out to explore the world of high-fashion millinery and discovered it surprisingly nearby — tucked away on Lansdowne Drive at Polly Singer's Couture Hats and Veils.

Singer and her business partner, Jan Yon, started getting ready for the Derby months ago, creating new designs and updating their Web site. Throughout April, the pace grows more hectic. Pretty soon they'll be running on fumes, filling orders and answering fashion 911 calls from women trapped in millinery emergencies.

"We know it's bad when the husband gets on the line," says Singer. Fetch the smelling salts; the lady of the house has swooned.

Bad hairbrush day: Singer, a Georgetown native, says she owes her hat-making career to a hairbrush that refused to let go of her head one morning when she was working in New York City. Her efforts to conceal it with a hat were praised by colleagues, and that gave her the nudge.

Interested in hats not just as cover-ups but as wearable sculpture, she studied millinery design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and interned with noted designer Patricia Underwood. She began her Internet-based business in 2003.

Singer's little upstairs showroom is brimming with colorful confections: an electric blue fascinator — a kind of small, feathery headpiece — with fuchsia plumes; a sweeping-brimmed, pale-gray straw hat with lavender silk-organza magnolias. These hats would say, "here is my head, adorned in loveliness." Some are twofers: a broad-brimmed hat trimmed with a fascinator that can be detached and worn alone. That takes care of the Oaks one day and Derby the next.

Top hats and pony tales: "Before Derby, we often have four callers waiting on hold," says Yon. "One year we were taking our seats at Churchill Downs and people were still calling our cell phones." Not that they often go to Derby — by then their exhaustion makes the prospect of watching something else run itself ragged less than thrilling.

"Does Santa enjoy Christmas?" asks Yon. No, make that, "Does the turkey enjoy Thanksgiving?"

They're joking, of course. Singer and Yon love what they do. It's just that this time of year, even with extra assistants called in, they could all use a few more hands each: for all the shaping, sewing, twisting and sculpting; for all the taking of orders and emailing and packaging, and especially all the hand-holding that's a big, big part of their job.

It turns out even the most sophisticated customers from Malibu to Manhattan can be plagued by doubts when it comes time to dress their heads for Millionaires Row. Something about the Derby makes the best-groomed clotheshorses quake in their Christian Louboutin pumps.

And then there are the barn girls, who are more comfortable in baseball caps than in straw hats with feathers. "A lot of our Thoroughbred people are barn girls," says Yon. They count Kentucky's first lady, Jane Beshear, among them. Singer has taken supplies to the governor's mansion and designed a hat for Beshear while she sat as if having her hair done. It was destined to be seen on TV by millions, so the pressure was on.

Pulling hat names out of a hat: To make her Derby hats, Singer starts with high-quality straw. She sizes them in gelatin, stretches them over a block, steams them and wires the brim and headband. "It's pretty labor-intensive," she says. At this point, the hat is just a basic shape: the Eliza (Doolittle), the Holly Golightly, the Elegant, or the newest shape, a lightweight flattish design worn at an angle. It's called the Kate for royal bride Kate Middleton, who favors the look.

Next comes the fun part: trimming. Most of Singer's feathers come from England; many of the fabric flowers come from a century-old family business in New York City's Garment District. Everything is sewn on by hand. After a new design is complete — and as with any piece of art, that's a judgment call — it's Yon's job to christen it with a name like Flutter By, White Mischief or Zenyatta. After the first few hundred, it gets tougher.

Google thinks highly of them: In a Kentucky-based business that's 90 percent online, it's important to keep the Web site among the top hits in a search for Derby hats. Yon's close attention to the business's blog helps with this. She's careful to include all relevant "metatags" or keywords at the bottom of each post to snag casual visitors who might ramble online in search of, say, hats in The King's Speech or Jane Austen or, most recently, Easter bonnets.

All the named hats on the Web site can be made to order in the customer's size. About 25 percent of the business is couture, or custom-made, and that percentage rises around Derby, thanks to the first principle of millinery: "People do not want to see their hat on someone else," says Yon.

Couture customers send pictures of the dress or dresses they plan to wear. If it's somebody who's never been to Derby, this can prompt a quick reply: "I don't think you want to wear that." Floor-length gowns, for example, can turn into mud-length disasters in a downpour.

Yon and Singer build a relationship with the buyer as they advise on what kind of hat would look best with the customer's face, hair and outfit. Singer creates a mock-up and sends a picture for approval. When the hat is finished, it's carefully placed, like all Singer's hats, in a black-and-pink hatbox and sent off FedEx with a personal thank-you note inside.

Heads, you win: Yon, who grew up in Arkansas, says her mother never left the house without a hat. "And when she put that hat on, a confidence settled on her."

Yon and Singer hope their customers will feel a similar confidence after each open their hatbox and put on their brand-new hat.

And when it's on, the hat will say, "Here is my head, and doesn't it look marvelous?"