By May S. Ruiz
Americans, as a rule, don’t typically wear hats the way they do sunglasses as a fashion accessory. However, if it were up to Cissy Li, all ladies would be wearing hats wherever they go, most especially to weddings and other stylish events. To advance her lifestyle philosophy, she started creating headwear in 2006 from her Pasadena home for close friends. And, recently, she displayed her collection called ‘Handmade by Cissy Li’ at an exhibition held at Joann’s Fine Arts Ai+ Gallery on Mentor Avenue.
The path that led Li from Suzhou as a child growing up, to Milan as an haute couture model and, finally, to Pasadena as an artisanal milliner, is paved with extraordinarily good fortune.
“I’ve always loved design, fashion accessories, and modeling, ” Li proclaims. I double-majored in Fashion Design and Modeling at Suzhou University near Shanghai. After graduation, I moved to Beijing where I worked for two years at the government-owned modeling company in exchange for my free education. Knowing that modeling as a career usually has a short span – because agencies are always looking for 14- to 16-year-olds – in 1997, I went to the Lutzelau School in Switzerland and took a Hotel Management course to have a back-up plan. It’s now called Swiss IM&H (Swiss Institute for Management and Hospitality).”
“Fortuitously, I went to New York in 2000 for a modeling pageant and earned the top award for Best Runway Model,” discloses Li. “The prize was a contract with an agency in Milan called ‘Zoom.’ In the same year, I won the Universal Asian Supermodel pageant in Las Vegas and was selected one of the Top Five Models. As a professional runway model working in Milan, I was lucky enough to wear the clothes and accessories of French and Italian designers, including Ferre, Nina Ricci, and Valentino. And my love for hats was only reinforced. When you wear one, you can’t lower your head because it’s going to fall. That compels you to stand erect and maintain good posture – so hats make you look very elegant.”
“I considered quitting by 2003 because I thought I was too old for the profession. So I moved to the U.S. and taught at the Barbizon Modeling School in Las Vegas. We entered a competition in New York but one of the students dropped out. Consequently, my boss told me I had to be my student’s replacement because she had already paid the registration fee. I protested saying, ‘I’m 26! I’m too old to compete.’ She retorted with, ‘You’re Asian, they won’t be able to tell your age.’ So I went to New York and won! The prize was another contract to go to Italy. And I thought, I had just left Italy and now I’m being sent back there,” Li recalls with a laugh.
“I did one show to fulfill the contract but I couldn’t continue doing it,” says Li. “In this business you sign one contract with one agent and if they refer you to another you get double charged, so you don’t really make any money. The cost of living in Italy is high – renting an apartment and feeding yourself cost a lot. And then you have to pay the agency on top of that. Besides, I wanted to focus on a different career, so I came back to the U.S. I was working for Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas as the Assistant Manager for Channel’s Fine Jewelry in 2005, when I met my future husband who’s from Pasadena. So I moved here and it was then I began making hats.”
Li’s interest in various crafts includes decoupage. She walks over to a side table, picks up a tray, and explains, “I created this with marble and gold leaf and it can be used for tea cups or as an Asian cheese board. It took three weeks to finish because the process involves layering the resin which needs to dry between applications. Additionally, there are several factors that affect it, like the weather and temperature. It has to be 70 degrees for the resin to adhere and, as you know, we had a long winter this year. For instance, these coasters took three months to complete. Taking all those into account, the pieces become too costly that I wouldn’t be able to sell them at a reasonable enough price for people to buy them so I give them to close friends as gifts. Handmade pieces are never perfect but these imperfections are what make them valuable. They’re evidence of being one-of-a-kind, and not commercially- or machine-made.”
“I love art. Besides my kids, art is my passion,” Li emphasizes. “I draw, paint, and design. And, of course, I have my hat projects. But you couldn’t do that full time when you have little kids at home. Now that they’re older, I can do a little bit more. I always say you have to choose a job you like so it doesn’t become a chore. I get up at 6:45 or 7:00 to get my children ready for the day, drop them off at school, and then I work in my studio. I pick them up from school, help them with homework, finish dinner, then I go back to my studio. Sometimes I’m here late at night or until the early morning hours. I get only four or five hours of sleep but I don’t feel tired because I love it and I don’t regret putting in that many hours working on my hats. Look at my fingers – they look dirty because the materials I use, like beaver hair, require a lot of steaming, stretching, pressing, and pushing onto the felt. After four hours, I literally cannot lift my arms. I do it because it’s my passion; if it were only for the money, I’d stop after eight hours. But I put in 12 hours at a stretch working on one single hat.”
“Sorting the materials for making the hats is also time-consuming,” adds Li. “I get shipments from England, Ukraine, Russia, and the Czech Republic. Vendors send me pictures of the items but when they get here, the colors are different from what are in the photos. I’m very visual; I can see the various hues. I’m also good with size and proportions so I have to sort and organize all the materials to make sure I put them together correctly. With items like flowers or feathers, you really need to source reliable vendors – I find them through friends’ introductions while some are very old and well-known houses, so I’m confident about their products. It’s also important to see them for yourself because you can’t tell their quality through photos. I travel to Europe every summer for two months and I visit my vendors between family holidays.”
Li specializes in fascinators, which aren’t really hats but fashionable headdresses that Prince William’s wife Catherine, otherwise known as the Duchess of Cambridge, made extremely popular.
“Each fascinator takes me anywhere from two to three weeks to complete because I want to find the precise color,” Li expounds. “I’m not very particular with a lot of things in my life, I’m pretty easy-going, but I am exacting in my work. There was one peacock fascinator I worked on which took a month to finish and, in the process, I learned that peacocks have green or blue shoulders. Some of the feathers that arrived had green reflections, some had reddish blue, so when I put them together they looked like Chinese fried rice. I had to order from different vendors to get the specific shades and then match them correctly. One client bought it, but instead of wearing it on her head, she has it hanging on her wall along with other paintings – she treats it like a piece of art. Knowing that clients appreciate the outcome makes this work gratifying.”
Working tirelessly for several months, Li was able to create over 100 handmade hats for an event she fittingly called ‘An Affair to Remember.’
“The show was meant as an exhibition and not as a sales event,” clarifies Li. “I wanted to give all my guests the chance to look at the hats and try them on. If someone were to buy a piece, then no one would be able to see it. However, a couple of guests really wanted to buy the hats and they waited until after the end of the show to take the items. A friend and loyal customer from Newport Beach had planned on coming to the exhibition but wasn’t able to make it because she twisted her knee a few days before. When I posted pictures of the hats for the event, she called me to tell me which one she wanted to buy.
“My clients are usually people I already know. I haven’t really gone commercial because I have no time. I’m one person and I can’t do the marketing and production all at once. Hats are also a very individual thing so I don’t mass-produce. I do it the traditional way – with custom sizing, fitting, and so forth. I’m leaving in mid-June for my annual trip to Europe but I’m hoping to start a website when I come back, not to sell the products but to showcase the hats so people who want to buy them can contact me. It’s also tough to do an online business; the laws protect customers and not the sellers. Our hats are shipped in beautiful hard boxes but when customers decide to return them, they come back in such bad shape and you feel awful about the merchandise. People looking for a bespoke hat can come to my studio, select all the components, and get instructions on how to wear the hats. It’s really about mutual respect.”
As an aficionado, Li is convinced that no one carries off wearing hats with more aplomb than the English. And where does one find an abundance of hats in all their splendor but at The Royal Ascot. It’s also the perfect place to get ideas for her hats, so she makes it a point to go to the opening of the renowned horse races in June. It’s both a work and fun excursion because she takes her children with her and they’re usually there for the Royal Procession when the Queen is in attendance.
On one particular occasion, her daughter, Claire, was so entranced by Queen Elizabeth’s headwear. Having been around her mom as she fashioned spectacular hats for clients, Claire confidently declared that Li would one day be the first Chinese-American milliner to create a bespoke piece for the Queen. Any other mom would brush off that endorsement as merely child’s fancy, but Li took that to heart. For several months now, she’s been in contact with some people connected with The Royal Ascot to figure out how to make it possible. However, she’s also cognizant that there are so many hoops to go through.
“The Queen approves only one brand of hats and clothing for The Royal Ascot,” Li states. “Selling there is also complicated because of taxation laws and import regulations. I have to consider all the things that could possibly go wrong. Can you imagine if we got stopped at the airport as we’re leaving because I didn’t take care of every legality? What would have been such a happy trip would end up something I’d deeply regret.”
Whether Li succeeds in getting her hats worn by the Queen and the smart crowd attending The Royal Ascot or not, nothing can hinder her from creating headwear for ladies here. We don’t have to be royals to wear her spectacular fascinators. But donning her meticulously fashioned hats will certainly make us feel like princesses.