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Two London Artists Quietly Craft 'Sculpture for the Head'

They have found a niche with creatively adorned, special-occasion hats inspired by past decades

'People will always be getting married. As long as people get married, we'll be making hats," Anne Tomlin says.

She and Bridget Bailey have been in partnership as millinery designers for five and a half years.

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They were previously textile designers, developing what they had done at art school. But in both their textiles (Ms. Tomlin was a weaver, Ms. Bailey made pleated fabrics) and their hats, they are "hands-on" people, not designers-on-paper. Each hat is subtly different, even if they sometimes produce as many as 100 duplicates of one design.

Both studied at the West Surrey College of Art and at the London College of Fashion. This was a time when students were still encouraged to give free rein to their imaginations and were not subjected to insistent "job training" tendencies that are prevalent today. Bailey says this early freedom influences the originality of their hats.

"We never thought about making money out of our textiles," she says. Bailey's strong-colored, almost sculptured fabrics became well-enough respected to appear dramatically on the cover and the inside of the 1991 book, "The New Textiles, Trends + Traditions," by Chloe Colchester.

Today Bailey has reached the point where, when asked if she is an artist or a craftsperson (that dubious divide), she tends instead to answer "I am trying to be a businesswoman."

All the same, their craftsmanship is clearly not compromised by their business sense. And they are hardly in big business - though they have certainly become a success. Their major outlets include Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nieman Marcus.

They cater to the "special occasion industry" in a time when, Tomlin says, "people just aren't used to wearing hats." And they even cater to a special clientele within that industry. "Bottom of the top," is Bailey's phrase for their niche.

They do not compete with the cheap straw-hat brigade, at 20-odd ($32) a go. And they have only occasionally sold extravagantly unique examples of their "sculpture for the head" at the 450-500 ($725-800) range (one such looks like a garden trellis in orbit, originally with roses attached).

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Bailey Tomlin hats fetch between 150 and 200 ($240 and 325) and a buyer of one of them can be pretty sure that either Tomlin or Bailey has literally had a hand in its making. (They sometimes work 80-hour weeks for months at a stretch.)

Their hats are actually distinctive and recognizable even to the unpracticed eye. I went into Fenwicks in London after my morning at their studio in South London, and easily picked out the one Bailey Tomlin hat on display: a very finely shaped straw hat, its crown and brim swirled around with a nonchalantly controlled, subtly colored fabric of great finesse. This sort of thing Tomlin describes as "very free-form: the whole point of draping is to make it look as though it's just happened without any effort." It is apparently a skill you more or less need to be born with.

Their hats, in straw or felt, are gently colored and superbly crafted. (Their blocks are made for them in Italy.) They look traditional. Their makers fish in the pool of nostalgia with a certain degree of merriment. They particularly like the 1930s, but they also borrow and adapt from the '20s and the turn-of-the-century. But what makes their hats different are the exquisite, fanciful, and knowing ways they are trimmed - in such things as dyed silks (they do the dyeing), unusual ribbons, hand-embossed velvets, roses or pansies made of bonded materials, even lilies in straw, which Bailey was busy forming and sewing throughout our interview.

Bailey and Tomlin are an example of the kind of craftsmen who have made their mark by sheer quality and character, rather than promotion.

"We have very quietly become established," Tomlin points out. "Even though we are not splashed across every magazine and in every newspaper you see, or on the TV, - people do know about us."

And Bailey adds: "We've got hats in a Harrods window at the moment, and in Liberty's window - and that's about as good a showcase as you can have."

Above all, it is clear they do not make hats for commercial reasons alone. Freedom of imagination is still paramount.

It is Bailey's opinion that "you can be much more creative with hats than with shoes or with clothes."

"Perhaps a hat is not everyday wear like other parts of women's wardrobes," Tomlin says, adding: "It sits on your head; you don't sit on it. It's a sculpture on the head, really, so you can go to town with it!"

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