As the quirky founder of her own ‘maverick milliner studio’, Crystal Birch hopes to make people feel special and encourage a sense of fun with her work
From working in the world’s fashion capitals and shooting Tanzanian music videos to creating bold sequinned unitards for Mongolian mouth contortionists and being the mastermind behind Jack Parow’s signature long caps, Birch is a creative force to be reckoned with. It’s no surprise, then, that she was listed as one of the reasons to visit South Africa by Wallpaper* magazine. ‘I’m a high-energy person full of random jokes and comments,’ she says. ‘When I was five years old, I wore a denim dress and matching hat for five days straight. I think that was the item of clothing that changed my life.’
Birch grew up in Tzaneen, Limpopo, before moving to Cape Town in 1995, and it was her early love of deconstructing clothes that inspired her to later study fashion design at Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion in Stellenbosch and begin a career as a fashion stylist. ‘I always wanted to be a specialist in either headwear or shoes, but it was a trip to Ireland that confirmed the millinery path for me,’ she says. After completing a course in London with renowned milliners Noel Stewart and Piers Atkinson, Birch started her eponymous label and in 2016, opened a store at Work Shop New Town in Johannesburg. Now, she’s making her mark at Parisian Milliners in Cape Town as a co-owner of one of the last three hat factories in the country.
‘My personality plays a huge role in what I do, which currently involves motivating a big team and levelling with and creating an enjoyable, rather than overwhelming, environment for my 85-year old business partner. I am definitely the biggest cheerleader on the factory floor!’ she says. ‘The best thing about millinery is that it’s diverse: hat people cover all spectrums, from super-conservative to ultimately expressive and conceptually playful.’
Which accessory does everyone need right now? A beret. Oui, oui!
What has been your most iconic style moment? When I fell pregnant and shaved off my hair. I felt liberated, my look changed with everything I wore and my earrings appeared bigger. I felt like Eleven in Stranger Things!
What’s inspiring you right now? Mostly the designers I’m collaborating with, people who visit the factory and their input on things, and of course, the factory workers. They are the best! Their stories and quips make my day.
What’s your favourite material to work with at the moment? Straw. I’m currently seeing how to mould different shapes into the hat and how big we can really go.
What’s on your decor wish-list? Dokter and Misses’ Moonjelly lights and LALA drinks cabinet, a MaXhosa by Laduma rug, a Xandre Kriel table and an artwork by Athi-Patra Ruga.
Where is your dream holiday destination? We recently visited Formentera island in Spain, and it was dreamy and free. Mexico seems to be at the top of my list, but locally, I first want to do a family mission with my man and little girl to the Transkei in our 1983 Mercedes-Benz. It would be even more surreal if our dogs could join us.
What’s your quote to live by? ‘If you want to get ahead, get a hat!’