BRITISH MILLINER VIVIEN SHERIFF’S workshop is reminiscent of an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. Tucked away in the rolling hills of Wiltshire, the intimate space is covered with rolls of coloured silks, boxes of seed pearls, and plummy feathers dipped in iridescent dyes.
With precise cuts of her blade, she trims the ingredients flown in from all over the world — silk from China, flowers from the Netherlands, handwoven straw from the Philippines. These never quite come in the exact colours promised on swatches or in photos, a fact which adds to the individuality of each hat.
A Royal, Discreet Affair
Sheriff’s sculptural creations are perched on the heads of British royalty — Princess Eugenie of York, Sophie Countess of Wessex, Katharine Duchess of Kent, and most famously, Kate Middleton. The Duchess of Cambridge wore a delicate pheasant feather and brown felt fascinator adorned with vintage buttons for her official engagement. Her mother, Carole, and sister Pippa Middleton, are also customers.
Sheriff’s subliminal touch for vibrant colours and luxurious material, embellished with quirks such as old-fashioned British sweets or miniature shoes, caught the eye of the royal crowd, who engaged her for bespoke commissions.
A former vintage textiles dealer, Sheriff is no stranger to rich, heavy cloth popular with late 18th century dressmakers. When the demand for such fabrics declined, Sheriff came up with the idea of turning them into headwear.
Forging A Sustainable Impression
Today, her Victorian-era-inspired pieces are made with a more sustainable approach.
“Headwear from that time would feature exotic feathers, but we avoid using plumes from rare birds these days. Instead, we take the feathers of more common birds and paint, dye and treat them individually to create the same effect.”
To ensure the perfect fit, she goes to great lengths to take detailed measurements on the hat’s snugness and lightness on the brow. She says, “I make sure that the headpiece fits quite far forward on the head on the right and then pin it in place.”
“For ladies, an upturned brim is best for exchanging cheek kisses with guests,” she quips.
Demand for Sheriff’s artful creations is surging today. Apart from British royalty, her clients include business tycoons and celebrities from the United States, Middle East, and Australia. Madonna is a famous customer.
Sheriff notes, “The Middle Eastern market, which is quite healthy thanks to the Dubai Cup, is more about colourful pieces that are embellished with crystals and feathers, while American clients opt for more traditional headpieces.”
“Millinery is still relevant today because when you wear a headpiece, you feel elevated.”