The Colgate Scene
September 2003

The milliner's tale
Dagmara Kokonas '91 found her passion making custom couture hats by hand

Dagmara Cepuritis Kokonas '91 has amassed more than 1,000 antique hat blocks from all over the country. Such a large collection allows her to create a nearly infinite number of shapes for her designs. By coincidence, the feminine version of her maiden name means "little hat" in the language of her parents' native country, Latvia. [Photo by Amy Braswell]

Ten years ago, Dagmara Cepuritis Kokonas '91 was immersed in her lucrative job as a stockbroker for CitiCorp in her hometown of Chicago when a staff development workshop turned her sense of her own career identity upside down.

"We were doing a self-discovery activity where people had to say what they thought of you," said Kokonas, "and someone said I was analytical and a number cruncher. I may be good at math, but that's not who I am. I started realizing there was a whole part of me that I wasn't expressing at my job. I said to myself, I'm doing the wrong thing."

Buoyed by the support of her husband, Nicholas '90, Kokonas quit her job on the spur of the moment. With a background in sewing learned from her mother, a love of fashion and a newfound interest in couture hats, Kokonas had begun taking design courses at the International Academy of Merchandising and Design and the Art Institute of Chicago.

She soon created a line of a dozen hats -- "on a shoestring," Kokonas said -- and her business, Maramara Millinery Design, was born. High-end retailers immediately recognized her talents. Orders for her first collection quickly came in from several Chicago stores, including Nordstrom, Marshall Field's, Mark Shale and Nieman Marcus, as well as a number of upscale boutiques.

The art and craft of hatmaking
Under the tutelage of a 90-year-old milliner, Kokonas further honed her craft, learning many traditional techniques that have been nearly lost.

Making a hat is a physically demanding process that requires strong hands as well as fine sewing skills. Most of the hats Kokonas makes begin as a "blank" called a hood, a disc of 100 percent Angora rabbit felt that looks like a large, floppy hat. She imports the material from the Czech Republic or Europe. She steams the hood and then stretches and pulls the felt over a hat block, a wooden form with interchangeable sections held together by ingenious dovetails and wood keys. Then she fastens the felt to the block with cord or straps to hold it in place. The blocking process for one hat takes about an hour, depending on the complexity of the shape.

"There were days in the beginning when we were really busting it to get the first order done for Marshall Field's by the deadline. My fingers were blistered and raw," said Kokonas, who mentioned that, in addition to hiring seamstresses, when time got really tight she called on her mom and sister to help complete the order.

Once the felt has dried, it is stiff enough to hold its shape, and she can slide the sections of the block apart and remove the hat. She carefully trims the brim to the final size with sturdy scissors. The interior receives a hand-sewn adjustable satin lining (to accommodate various head sizes), and grosgrain ribbon, handmade silk flowers or other trims complete the hat. Kokonas also makes hats of other materials such as straw, although she prefers to work with the felt.

Maramara Millinery Design has undergone several transformations since its inception in 1993. Kokonas's first focus was selling her hats wholesale, which built up quickly, but also presented several challenges.

"Once I got really busy, I started hiring sales reps," Kokonas explained. But although she had representatives working for her in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York, the milliner herself turned out to be the best spokesperson for her product, outpacing everyone in sales volume. The problem was, "the bigger it got, the more I was on the phone, on the computer and traveling, and not having much fun. I really love making the hats," she said.

Kokonas also found that her particular style didn't resonate with customers in some of the markets she wanted to enter.

"I tried to sell hats in Texas and Atlanta through my reps," said Kokonas, "and the feedback I was getting from them was, `If you are going to sell hats down here, they are going to need a lot more rhinestones and glitter.'" Rather than moving in a style direction she didn't care for -- and spreading herself even thinner -- she decided to limit her wholesale business to a select few stores where she had established a personal relationship with the buyer, and in 1997 went into retail, opening her own shop in suburban Chicago.

The mystique of the hat
"When you wear a hat, people are more gracious to you," Kokonas said in describing the unique qualities of what on the surface might be seen as simply an accessory. "A hat evokes respect. Hats also give you the opportunity to be somebody that you want to be, or to hide who you are. There is an emotional aspect to buying a hat."

Working directly with individual customers at her shop, Kokonas found that "selling a hat to someone is a very personal experience. People began confiding in me and relying on me for advice." It's no rare occurrence, she said, for a customer with an upcoming special occasion to come in with three different outfits, tags still affixed, wanting Kokonas's assessment of which would look best with a chosen hat, as well as her help pulling together the rest of the ensemble.

And who is wearing hats these days?

"It's somebody who has a lot of self-confidence and cares very much about their ensemble," Kokonas explained. "Anybody who is going to a wedding in Europe has to have a hat to bring over. People will buy a hat to go with their coat. Sometimes husbands want their wives to be hat people and drag them in. I think it's more of a `psychographic' than a demographic," she noted.

Perhaps there's also a sociological element to who's wearing -- or not wearing -- hats. Kokonas has observed that many female baby boomers, raised at the tail end of the hats-and-gloves-required era, bristle at that memory and have no interest in hats. But, she said, many young woman, enamored with the retro look of fashions of the '40s and '50s, are buying coats and hats that they could have pulled out of their own grandmothers' closets. "My assistant and I coined a term for it -- `grandma chic,'" laughed Kokonas. In fact, her clients range from women in their 20s to those in their 80s.

In 2002, with the impending birth of her second child, Kokonas decided to close the shop, which she had operated for five years, in order to concentrate on custom work. She moved her stock and supplies into a studio in the Kenilworth home she and her husband share with sons James, 4, and Theo, who was born last January.

She's enjoying the flexibility of working on an appointment-only basis and traveling with her hats to retail shows around the country. "By keeping my overhead low," she said, "I can be more responsive to what I'm feeling and what my clients are inspiring in me." Kokonas uses digital photography and e-mail to consult on designs and materials, allowing her to provide a personal touch, regardless of where her clients live. At her busiest, Kokonas makes approximately 100 hats per month. She also makes presentations about hatmaking, fashion, tea etiquette or the history of hats, at fashion shows, ladies' club meetings and antique societies.

Looking back at how she became an artisan and entrepreneur, Kokonas, who majored in Asian studies at Colgate, said that she never took an art class in college, but remarked that "the liberal arts isn't about only taking classes in your major. You have to take political science, psychology, geology and philosophy, which forces you to stretch yourself and to look at things from different places," she said. "It shapes your independent thinking. The way that I run the business has elements from that education."

It's clear that Dagmara Kokonas has found her calling. "Of course there is pressure, with deadlines and expectations and clients and shows, but it's a fun kind of pressure," she said. "I'm happy every day."

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