Even if it wasn’t the 6-foot giraffe chapeau perched gracefully atop the head of a grand dame, any David Shilling original would likely mesmerize the poor chap sitting behind one, taking attention from the event at hand. Often seen gracing the royal enclosure at Ascot, the premier English horserace-cum-fashion show, Shilling’s hats always make a statement.
David Shilling does not exclude anything from his creative process that could be translated into a work of art. Although not formally schooled in art he has become one of England’s greatest designers having had significant longevity and notoriety in the marketplace.
“I was an only child, my parents were married for 12 years before I was born. I started designing when I was 8, when I repainted my room. Then, at the age of 12, I designed a black and white hat for my mother who wore it to Ascot, and it caused a sensation in the royal enclosure,” said Shilling. Each year his hats would get more outrageous. From a William Tell hat with an apple and an arrow to the aforementioned 6-foot giraffe, Shilling pushes the traditional design standards of ‘the hat.’
“If you believe in something, carry on with it,” said Shilling, “Never give up, never give in!” In 1976 he opened his shop selling the hats and other items he designed.
“I tried this against all odds. It was very new and innovative to design for a generation of people who were not accustomed to wearing anything on their heads,” said Shilling charismatically. He knew the hats would have to be extremely lightweight, colorful and interesting. He accomplished his design goal. Bloomingdales bought out his entire first collection and threw him a fabulous party at the legendary Studio 54 to formally introduce his work. The fashion industry poked fun at the new designer and predicted that his success would not last. Clearly, after over 25 years of business and presence in museums and public and private art galleries, the neigh-sayers have been proven wrong. “We don’t sell wholesale any more, “ said Shilling. Each hat is one of a kind and haute couture. He keeps his client list confidential, although his name is mentioned on the Queen’s website.
To wear the hats, you need to be a spirited person attending an equally spirited occasion. One can choose to commission a jeweled hat boasting real diamonds, amethysts and pearls, an outlandish masterpiece or one that is simpler in taste but equally awe-inspiring. Shilling thinks it is important that the hat suit a client’s personality and needs.
“The whole thing is to be very fun. I think that hats should be something that ‘only you’ own. Uniqueness is one of the joys in life,” said Shilling. One of his hats even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most expensive hat (at that time it was 1/4 of a million dollars).
Shilling is constantly pushing his own boundaries as an artist thus creating the deep integrity in his work. “Designing is more than sitting in the bath with a glass of champagne. It’s coming up with something fresh season after season,” said Shilling. Well, he has most certainly done just that! He has created men’s and women’s accessories, interiors, furniture and ceramics. Also, he has designed for Wedgwood, and fashioned costumes for theatre, television, films, opera, ballet, and authored the book “Thinking Rich.” “The trick in life is to keep facing new challenges,” said Shilling, and points his most recent conquest, sculpture design.
“My hats are reincarnated into big metal things,” said Shilling jokingly. His famous sculpture “Racing Ahead” is 10 feet high and weighs over a quarter of a ton. The piece, depicting 3 racing horses, is currently included in an exhibit at the Newmarket Race Course in England.
And Shilling certainly is racing ahead; creating pieces that are many times referred to as “larger than life.” Shilling, without skipping a beat responds to that accordingly: “It depends what size your life is.”
To check out more of his hats and his other artwork, go to www.davidshilling.com
– Jewel Donohue