People who wear hats, Mary T. Patterson said, are “daring, comfortable with who they are, don’t have anything to prove and are willing to try something new.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, that description also fits Patterson, who left a successful career in marketing and public relations to pursue a lifelong dream.
“Fashion design was not just something I happened upon; it was the original plan, and I deviated from it,” she said from her studio in rural Jackson County. “I gave up too easily.”
Patterson began sewing, making her own patterns out of newspaper, as a child in Murphysboro.
“Fashion design was always a passion. I had it in me as a very young girl,” she said. “I shadowed other designers but always had to have my own twist on things. I like uniqueness.”
After high school, she went to Milwaukee in the early 1980s with $50 in her pocket. She put herself through community college, made a move to Boston and began working for an international banking firm.
“My boss there encouraged me to finish my degree in PR and marketing. I did but continued sewing. I wore the clothes I made to work and did some dressmaking for a few people,” she said.
Then came a move to San Francisco, where she worked for financial institutions before landing at a consultant firm.
“The blessing came when they downsized, and I got laid off. I began making jewelry and was making a decent amount of money,” she said. “I decided I needed to go to school to learn about all the different aspects of fashion design. There was a lot I didn’t know. I needed to learn the proper way to do things and gain an understanding of the industry.”
Her interest in millinery came under the tutelage of her instructor, Veronica Chin, at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago.
“Millinery is an art and a very specialized profession. I learned from a true, seasoned professional,” she said. “She persuaded me to play with millinery, and I’ve been doing so for about two years now.”
An internship last year under classic designer Giorgio Vannini in Florence, Italy, grew her confidence.
“It was fascinating to watch a classic designer work. He designed on the spot and had a tremendous eye for fabric,” she said. “He let me work unsupervised. I was very scared, but he threw me out there, and I learned a lot.”
By profession and degree, she is a fashion designer but has developed a niche for hat design, she said.
“I treat it like a sculpture. Instead of etching and carving, I’m sewing and cutting,” she said.
Her hats, hand-sewn with rich fabrics and textiles and lush linings, are inspired by architecture and flowers and are a “mix of “1920s and ’30s vintage fashion with a modern contemporary vibe.”
She is researching the Harlem Renaissance, ragtime and jazz eras for her new lines.
“I’m exploring how African-American women dressed in those times,” she said.
She just finished a line of fascinators, fanciful, uniquely embellished headpieces, called “In Blacktuality.”
“Black is basic,” she said. “It’s traditional and always going to be elegant.”
Patterson is also designing lines for the Kentucky Derby and polo markets.
After years in cities, she decided to return to the slower pace of her native Southern Illinois after graduation.
“Thanks to the Internet and social media, I can work almost anywhere. I’m just starting out and something was drawing me back here,” she said.
Her designs are available online and she also sells her wares at trade shows, art and craft shows and wineries.
“Nothing is impossible if you have a passion,” she said. “What you want is there for the picking. You just have to go after it.”