Cheeky Hats: Interview with Milliner Roberta Cucuzza

Wearing the Brixton Hat in NYC

I am, and have always been, a hat girl. I wear berets, sun hats, and pom-pom winter beanies. There was even an unfortunate phase in my tween years when I rocked tweed newsboy caps. But when I moved to London last year, I learned that my New York hat collection was a bit, well, wee.

You see, British people love hats– their mild winters provide the perfect temperature for a dandy headpiece. The trend is also bolstered by the royal family, whose proclivity for fascinators and other felt creations has inspired generations of British women to flaunt elaborate headpieces at weddings and other fancy occasions.

Wearing the Brixton Hat in Central Park

This culture intrigued me and made me eager to try a new breed of hat– one that was crafted by hand, and carried an air of nostalgia with a whiff of sophistication. So you can imagine my joy when I encountered Roberta Cucuzza, the designer behind Cheeky Hats, at Crafty Fox Market last year.

Cucuzza’s sculptural designs breathe new life into old-fashioned styles, like the 1920s-inspired ‘Brixton Hat’ shown here. A stripe of vibrant burgundy and sky-blue grosgrain ribbon brightens the black silhouette, its brim flattening at the top to reveal a sparkling oxblood flower. This combo is Weimar in shape, pop art in color, and undoubtedly cheeky in tone. Naturally, I had to have it.

I bought the Brixton Hat almost instantly, but I stayed behind to ask the milliner a few questions. For me, half the fun of shopping is talking to the designer and learning what inspires them to create. Luckily, Cucuzza was receptive to a post-purchase conversation about millinery, fashion, and creativity. Her demeanor was warm and enthusiastic; a natural fit for my own eager disposition.

Our dialogue spilled over into the virtual realm, where we chatted via email about Cucuzza’s work and her family’s fashion legacy. The following interview has been condensed from these conversations and edited to read like the milliner’s hats– seamlessly.

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Chloe: Let’s start at the very beginning. You’ve told me that design runs in your family– for at least four generations! Why do you think the art of sewing has remained a part of your family identity for so long?

Roberta: My great-grandmother Maria was an incredible woman. She opened a tailoring business and an atelier in 1920s Sicily– some of her clients were Sicilian nobility! She inspired a whole family for generations. I think the main reason the art of sewing remained so ingrained in us is that it was associated with survival and love. 

Cucuzza’s Great-Grandmother, Maria, Via Cucuzza

Maria used her sewing skills on two occasions to support her family. The first time was after her father died, when she used her sewing skills to get work and help her mother. She eventually developed a successful business that employed over 30 women! Later, when her husband died suddenly, she was left alone with six young children to raise, and nearly closed the business.

This is where love comes in. The story goes that her deceased husband appeared to her in a dream and told her to look for a new sewing studio with four rooms and no kitchen. Only days later she responded to an advert and found a studio exactly like that. My family still lives in that very apartment.

Chloe: That is a beautiful and inspiring story. Does most of your family still live in Sicily?

Roberta Cucuzza wearing the San Francisco Hat, Via Cucuzza

Roberta: The older generation of my family still lives in Sicily, but London is home to four of my cousins and their families, including me. We moved here slowly over the years for different reasons– a love of culture, the tales of freedom and creativity that the city offered. I came soon after my graduation in English and never looked back!

Chloe: Are your millinery skills inherited too?

Roberta: Although my great-grandmother did make some fabric hats, I am actually the first milliner in the family. The skills I inherited from my family are around the love for high-quality craftsmanship, happy customers, and a creative approach. 

Chloe: Let’s talk about that approach. You say that Maria was influenced design-wise by a trip to Paris, and Italian design has its own flavor, of course. Do you think your aesthetic incorporates qualities of French, Italian, and/or English design? I ask because these three nations have a strong presence in your family, likely influencing the sights and sounds you’ve been exposed to over the years.

Sun Hat Via Cheeky Hats

Roberta: That’s a really interesting question. Italian fashion actually underwent a period of decline from the 17th Century until the early 1950s, while French fashion was leading the way. So the two are inextricably intertwined.

Chloe: Especially from the perspective of an Italian seamstress, living in Italy but learning about French fashion!

Roberta: Exactly! And there was a lot of cross-cultural collaboration in those days, between France and Italy but also England. The word ‘millinery’ is derived from ‘Milan,’ and roughly translates to ‘a vendor of fancy goods from Milan.’ It’s all interlinked somehow. So even though I don’t consciously introduce references to a particular culture in my work, you will find French or Italian vintage elements decorating culture-neutral designs, like the shape and effect of this sun hat.

Chloe: I want to know more about what inspires you beyond your incredibly rich cultural and familial history. What sights, sounds, colors, ideas, and textures shape your aesthetic and motivate you to create?

Roberta: I draw inspiration from a number of sources. They blend into each other and manifest themselves in the most interesting combinations! Strong and bold features have always attracted me. Beetlejuice was (and still is) one of my favourite films for its strong visual components. I love architecture – especially modern, brutalist and baroque buildings, Art Deco, and the illustrations of Erté. 

One other strong influence comes from theatre and cabaret. My uncle is an established theatre actor in Sicily. As a child I often went along and watched his shows from behind the scenes. I adored the atmosphere backstage: the adrenaline of the young actors, the laughter, the tears, the costumes put on in a rush, the make-up rituals. This has played a huge part in shaping my taste. It’s a lot of influences I know, but they all sit nicely together, waiting for a serendipitous event to take place!

Chloe: With that kind of childhood it’s no surprise you ended up working in fashion. Can you tell me about your professional path, and what led you to take up millinery?

Roberta: My main job is actually in technology for a science startup. I have always counterbalanced that with activities that are completely analogue, such as drawing, collage, and eventually millinery.

I took life drawing classes here in London with two brilliant artists: Brian Seyers and Alice White. Brian taught me how to look at shapes, how to interpret balance and contrast, while Alice had a more playful approach to interpreting a subject. I then explored other routes such as painting, watercolour and linocut. When a friend told me about the workshop with milliner Katherine Elizabeth, I jumped on it with avid curiosity. Somehow all the training I previously had, and the influences that shape my taste, all came together in this craft.

Victoria Park Hat, via Cheeky Hats

Chloe: Your arts training is definitely evident in your work. Some of your hats look like wearable sculptures! Because of that, I’m curious about your artistic process. Would you call it experimental– a process of shaping fabric that results in a somewhat surprising outcome? Or do you have a shape in mind when you begin and manipulate the material to achieve it?

Roberta: Materials speak to me a lot. I like touching them and looking closely to explore their body, texture, colours and shapes. I play until I am satisfied, or I find an interesting contrast (one of my latest projects, the Victoria Park hat, has a cobalt blue base decorated with lime green synamay).

Serendipity is my best friend. Sometimes I leave the unfinished hat to the side for a few days, and I might stumble across the missing piece while I am out doing something else. Even when I work with clients to realise their ideas, there is always a random element that emerges during the millinery process that makes their hat unique. I have replicated some of my designs, but it’s very difficult task.

Covent Garden Hat, Via Cheeky Hats

Chloe: The shape of the Covent Garden Hat feels organic, like something that could appear in nature—a shell perched atop a stone weathered by water. But the material and the colors are cosmopolitan, very fashionable. It’s an interesting blend of natural and manmade.

Roberta: I absolutely adore that interpretation. I think you have managed to verbalise concepts that I could only feel with my hands. How wonderful!

Chloe: That’s very kind of you to say! But I do think you’ve got language in your arsenal too. You name your hats after different neighborhoods in London, and each feels so perfectly titled, like you’ve distilled the essence of a neighborhood into the accessory worn by an inhabitant.

Roberta: I have named some of my hats after places in London to reflect the connection with my city. I give the names after I have finished the hat. Sometimes the name reflects a moment I have shared with someone, like the Portobello hat which was modeled by a friend who lived in the area, or it could be where I imagine someone wearing it – like ‘On the Southbank’.

Roberta Cucuzza putting her spin on the Brixton Hat, Via Cheeky Hats

Chloe: I see I bought the Brixton Hat! What can you tell me about that neighborhood? I would love to know what makes this hat the Brixton Hat. 

Roberta: I am so glad you got the Brixton hat! It has a nice story. I put a lot of hours of work into this hat and I was curious to see what other people made of it. I saw that Crafty Fox Market was hosting an event in Brixton, so I put the hat on and headed down there. I wanted to see if ‘other makers’ liked it, which was the ultimate way to validate my hypothesis! I went around the stalls and got lots of questions and lovely comments, which made my day.

Chloe: And I’ve been getting lots of both too, especially from strangers, which to me is the ultimate stamp of approval. If you’re willing to be social on a busy subway car to ask who made my hat, it must be a good hat.

On another note– I know you often work on custom orders. Any interesting commissions you’d like to share?

via Olive TuPartie on Instagram

Roberta: Well, as you know by now, I love theatre and cabaret. I had been looking for opportunities to collaborate with artists, and one day last year it happened! I had the commission of my dreams from New York-based burlesque performer Olive TuPartie. She asked me if I could realise a 1940’s inspired ‘Olive’ hat, complete with a pimento and skewer.

via Cheeky Hats on Instagram

We had a strong connection, even from across the ocean. There was a perfect balance of direction and freedom to create. It is nerve-wracking to post a hat to a client that you have never met– you wonder if it will fit properly.

But Olive’s fit perfectly and she sent me some amazing pictures– and not just in outfits. She posed nude for wire artist Skye Ferrante, aka Man of Wire, wearing just the hat. Olive also wore her hat for a photoshoot in an Icelandic lagoon. I was and still am so thrilled to be part of her stage life. It’s the most rewarding experience to see how customers style their hats, and how gorgeous they feel in them!

Chloe: I can tell you from personal experience just how beautiful I feel in mine! What have you got on the horizon for any hat lovers (and hat-curious fashionistas) who want a Cheeky Hat?

Roberta: I occasionally attend London markets such as Crafty Fox, but I mainly sell through my Etsy shop and website, where I also do commissions. One big event I have this year is the London Hat Week Exhibition 2020 – To the Future and Back at the Menier Gallery in London. My hat Space Dance will be on display at the gallery from 16th April, and I literally cannot wait!

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Whether you’re a fellow hat-lover or only hat-curious, I hope this article has piqued your interest in finding the perfect bonnet. Hats truly are transformative, and are more versatile than you may think. As someone who is not infrequently mistaken for a teenager, I appreciate that my sophisticated (yet cheeky) topper oozes history, craft, and taste, asserting that I am not, in fact, sixteen.

As for versatility, you’d be surprised how the character of a hat changes with its context. Hats are like your little black dress, which swings between office-appropriate and cocktail-ready depending on the height of your heels. My Brixton Hat takes its shape from the 1920s, but leans towards the swinging 60s when paired with the right frock. Here, I chanelled the mods by layering a sleeveless dress over a black long-sleeve shirt. This dress is Diane von Furstenberg, and it’s not vintage, but it looks the part! Opaque tights, flat black boots, and a round-button coat complete the mod look. The result? Weimar meets Carnaby Street.

I’m excited to style my Brixton Hat a number of ways. Have any ideas? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram. And I’d love to see pics of you all in your favorite hats, especially if they’re cheeky…

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If you’d like to order a Cheeky Hat, click the above links to view Cucuzza’s Etsy shop and personal website. You can also follow along on Instagram to stay up-to-date with her latest creations.

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