- Associated Press - Thursday, April 30, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Kimberly Gondrella is a milliner at Fleur de Paris, a fanciful custom millinery and couture boutique located on Royal Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The unique house of style is brimming with Gondrella’s fur felt and straw crowning confections, which sport colorful vintage ribbons, brooches, crystals, appliques, flowers and feathers.

A signature Fleur de Paris creation may seem like an indulgence, but as the 141st Kentucky Derby approaches on Saturday the store has transformed into a decorative depot where dozens of hats are purchased and shipped daily. Fashionable ladies who plan to attend The Derby and The Kentucky Oaks expect their bonnets to stand out more than the famed Twin Spires and be more discussed than the odds of thoroughbreds International Star, Dortmund and Carpe Diem winning by a nose.

“Gatsby, Deco and Jazz age looks have been very successful,” Gondrella said. “This season has been all about wild feathers, big trim and playing with patterns and texture. Color is always important.”


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“The Derby is our biggest event,” Joseph Parrino, Jr., Fleur de Paris’ owner, said. “There are at least 1,000 of our hats worn at The Derby every year and 12 have been exhibited at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. Many Louisville women come here in person to delight in a day of shopping, or they phone in an order. Some send us a belt and a shoe and ask us to build a hat around them. It’s our quality and variety that has put us on the map.”

“The hat market is cresting right now,” Parrino said. “Events are plentiful and you always have an occasion and opportunity to wear a hat in New Orleans, and buy them too.



The global market for hats, caps and millinery is projected to reach $7.7 billion by 2020, according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc., a leading publisher of market research. They found the United States represents the single largest market worldwide due to “improving economic conditions, rising levels of employment and increasing discretionary spending on apparel and accessories.”

“The fashion unlike the fad comes back,” Parrino said. “You can get a hat anywhere, but people come here for a great hat that’s unique and expressive.”

Parrino said their busy season typically starts at the first bugle call at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track the day after Thanksgiving and crescendos at Easter and Derby Day.

“The Kentucky Derby is like the Academy Awards for hat lovers,” Diane Feen, editor of hatlife.com, said. “On this one day of the year the head becomes prime real estate for showing off fashion prowess. Wearing a Derby hat is akin to a peacock’s plumage - the brighter and more beautiful, the more others will envy and admire you. The Derby is the biggest hat event of the year. Hat designers around the world up their game for this momentous occasion.”

“As an artist, I don’t follow trends as much as try to create them,” milliner Gondrella said. “Other people’s work does not affect my own, and I pay it little attention. I am mindful of what colors and prints are being shown for the season as my hats still need to coordinate within an overall outfit. Popular culture also plays a role. Last year’s holiday season was still all about ‘Gatsby’ while now, everyone is talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’”

With an international reputation and an elegant clientele, Fleur de Paris produces hats worn atop graceful heads at Royal Ascot, the Dubai World Cup, the Melbourne Cup, Royal and celebrity weddings.

Penny Hall, a devotee from Rockledge, Florida, has 24 Fleur de Paris hats. Some are winter felts and some are summer straw, but she said all are equally loved and admired. “Fleur de Paris is a one-of-a-kind shop that sells one-of-a-kind hats. I love all the variety and have had two hats custom made for me. I travel a great deal and have never seen another shop with such a variety of hat styles, not to mention the thousands of different adornments that can be added to make the hat very individualized. My favorite hat would be one that was made for me, which has incredible black feathers with red accents. I receive many, many compliments when I wear the hat.”

Fleur de Paris’ pink and black lace round hatboxes are also a coveted accessory. They measure up to 24” in diameter and 10” tall and can only be obtained with a hat purchase, though Parrino said many have tried to buy them individually. The lid’s round perimeter is lined in black muslin, and the hatbox comes with acid free tissue paper inside. “We teach customers how to care for their hats for life,” Parrino said. “We welcome customers to come back in and bring their hats to add more to them, change trimmings or to take away trimmings to add to a new hat. They know how to invest in quality.”

While half of Parrino’s business relies on selling daytime hats, cocktail hats and fascinators, Fleur de Paris also sells couture evening gowns, wedding gowns, ready-to-wear contemporary day apparel, lingerie, purses, jewelry, silk scarves and embellished headbands.

“To see Fleur de Paris through someone else’s eyes for the first time is like a ‘Wow’ moment,” Parrino said of his store’s whimsical opulence. “People go wild. We pride ourselves in providing an exemplary customer shopping experience.”

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