When it comes to royalty and racing, I’m in it purely for the hats. The sheer whimsy and impracticality of fanciful cranial adornments have long made them the objects of fantasy for regular folk. And while most of us may not receive an invitation to a wedding at Buckingham Palace, many will have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the smart set at Saratoga Race Course’s Travers Stakes this and every August for many years to come.
Karen Sewell is one of those people who loved the idea of getting in on the fun north of the neck. The creative force behind Saratoga Springs’ Pommenkare Fine Millinery (sold at Saratoga Trunk on Broadway in Saratoga Springs) just happened to live across the street from the racetrack, and thought she’d try her hand at millinery—with unfortunate results. “I thought, hey, we’ll go to the races, and I’ll make some hats! My first attempts were not good,” says Sewell with a laugh. “I thought, if I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do it right—so I started studying.”
The Rochester Institute of Technology graduate was already artistic, holding a degree in photographic illustration and design, and found the process of hat-making to be a satisfying outlet to express her design ideas. “I love to create sculpture you can wear,” she says. She draws inspiration from the world around her, and especially from nature, but carefully avoids looking at other milliners’ work. “I experiment with the juxtaposition between warm and cold, organic and geometric. My designs tend to morph and change as I create them.”
As a huge fan of dramatic flourishes in both interior design and fashion, it was easy for me to fall for Sewell’s brand of whimsy. From gravity-defying fascinators to aggressively exaggerated wide-brimmed bonnets, her creations are all one-of-a-kind, created by her alone. “You can find hats at all quality levels and price points here in town, but mine are all stitched by hand—no glue!” she says. At any one time, Sewell has as many as six hats in production, all in varying stages of completion. “It’s a time-consuming process,” she says.
One of the creations of which she’s most proud also pushed the ingenuity envelope for Sewell: a commission from a college graduate seeking to transform into Marie Antoinette for her graduation portrait. “I built a model ship, complete with satin sails to incorporate into the design,” Sewell tells me. “That hat weighed quite a few pounds!” They don’t call her a millinery artist for nothing.