Stepping into Lola Ehrlich’s vast, light-filled studio in Bushwick is like stepping into another world. Brightly colored hats, wooden hat blocks, and an open floor plan of women and sewing and stitching the new collection is a sight unlike any other I encounter when visiting designer’s studios. Lola herself is a beautiful, eclectic, warm, and inviting woman; welcoming our team to try on hats and explore the studio as she described the intricate and lengthy process of designing and producing hats all in one space. Born in Holland, and raised in Paris, Lola moved to New York in 1974, and opened her first hat shop in the East Village in 1989. She took night classes at FIT to learn millinery and came to rely on the old women who visited her shop for hats to teach her the rest. Her story is unlike any other; a true, magical gem in an industry where so much can feel familiar. From a one-woman shop in the East Village to seeing her hats in stores all over the world – Lola and her hats are one-of-a-kind.
What was the best part of your unconventional childhood in Paris?
The freedom! Since my sister and I didn’t go to school and our parents scarcely bothered to teach us anything academic, we ran around the house and garden as we pleased. There’s nothing more delightful than being raised like wolves. As long as we didn’t jump in the Seine, all was fine!
When did you first move to NYC? How did you end up opening your store in the East Village?
I moved to New York in 1974. It seemed so exciting then – Andy Warhol’s Factory, early punk, graffiti-covered subway cars. Great fun! I opened my first store quite a bit later, in 1989. I had a vision of how it should look—like a French millinery shop on the set of an American musical. My store was charming and colorful and stood out like a glowing gem in the drugged-out East Village of the day.
Why did you gravitate toward millinery?
Before I started my business, I used to wear hats made by a milliner friend. But I was an unbearable customer, since I made such specific demands: 1/8” bigger brim, the blue color should be a tad lighter, and so on. To save the friendship, I took a swing at making my own hats and loved it so much that I decided to make a career out of it.
How did you begin to learn the intricate details of hat making?
I took evening classes at FIT and learned the basics there. Then, when I had my shop, elderly milliners who walked and saw me struggling would by come in and teach me the right way to do things. All those wonderful old ladies are gone now.
How do your infamous vintage wooden blocks factor into the production process? How many do you have now?
Just as in shoemaking, they are the base structure on which each form is molded. With shoes, the leather is stretched over the last. With hats, the felt or straw is stretched over the block when damp and removed when dry. I have a few hundred classic blocks and some that are really whacked out. I found a lot of them dumpster-diving in the old millinery district.
What inspires the playful structure and detailing that makes your hats so unique?
I spend a lot of time on each design, playing with the base material and various trims until some accident or mishap turns it into something good. It doesn’t work if I do a sketch beforehand. The best ideas come organically, in the process of working with the materials.
Do you get requests for one-of-a-kind pieces?
When I had my store, that’s pretty much all I did. I was a milliner in those days. Now we are hatters and manufacture hundreds, sometimes thousands, of the same style. We develop unique designs for retailers, but they end up being made in multiples.
What is a typical day like for you in the studio?
The mornings are usually spent answering emails, solving production problems, and struggling to wake up. The afternoons really vary. We might do a photo shoot or have appointments with store buyers. On other days I work with the team, finding interesting materials and suppliers or implement better ways of making the hats. Throughout the day, I walk back and forth through the studio—it’s big, 5,500 square feet—making sure that everything’s going smoothly. At 5 p.m., the hat-making crew leaves and I have two or three hours to myself. That’s when I work on new designs, or just daydream.
I’ve read that you yourself aren’t much of a hat person. Why is that?
We make lots of hats at the studio, yet I have a very intimate relationship with every one of them. All through the day I pick them up, inspect them, try some on. When you develop a handmade product, it’s extremely important that it does not veer off from the original design—so easy when each blocker and each stitcher has a slightly different way of doing things. At the end of the day I might have tried on 50 hats. So the last thing I want to do is to put on yet another hat as I walk out of the studio.
How do you split your time between Bushwick and Saint Paul-de-Vence?
The truth is, I spend most of my time in Bushwick. A life of leisure in sunny Provence is not so much my style.
What would you say is the most interesting travel treasure in the Bushwick studio?
An old-fashioned carved iron that I brought back from Ecuador. This iron opens up to hold embers to heat it. So glad we don’t have to iron this way. I keep business cards in the iron now!