Poetry in motion
Melbourne-based Souri Sengdara was the 2022 winner of the inaugural Lillian Frank AM MBE Millinery Award, wowing the judges with her swirling, sculptural two-toned headpiece titled ‘Flow’, made of jinsin (a natural straw fibre) and embellished with gold detail in the form of hat pins. The hat was inspired by celebrities such as Harry Styles, as well as the VRC’s changes to this year’s Fashions on the Field competitions, which promote inclusivity and personal style. “‘Flow’ embodies the natural flow of change,” said Sengdara “This can be flow of dark into light, flow of night into day and flow of boy into girl.”
How long have you been a milliner?
I’m a photographer by trade, that’s my full-time work. Millinery has always been more of a cool hobby and interest that I’ve been doing for about 20 years or so. I really like making sculptural pieces. I like to think that I’m producing works of art, rather than just hats.
Did you study millinery, in a formal sense?
Not really, although years ago I studied with Sandra Buchanan, who held classes in her home, she was great. She taught me the basics and I did a little stint with Peter Jago as well. So I’ve done some short courses, but basically, I’m self-taught. For me, millinery is a form of expression. I love to create talking points, pieces that are conversation starters.
Tell me about your millinery brand, Velvet and Tonic.
I started Velvet and Tonic probably a year or so before COVID hit. It’s a fusion of fun and luxury, but the timing meant it didn’t really have a chance, there was no sales momentum. But during lockdown, I joined this small collective of milliners who all came together and encouraged each other through COVID times. We went online, sharing our hat designs, and making pieces with a theme, to help keep the creative juices flowing … it was so nice. As things opened a bit more, we then got together once a month to have little high teas and show off our design to each other. There had been no events to make hats for, no racing, no occasions!
What was your inspiration for the winning hat?
I heard there was a theme of inclusivity within the Myer Fashions on the Field this time and I thought, “this is such a good thing”. I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I wanted to create something gender neutral, and for a beautiful man to wear the hat. It would be designed for anybody who loved it, it didn’t matter. I used jinsin, which is very tough fibre. You can’t use a traditional block, but it flows and allows you to free-from sculpt, which is what I like about it. I’m always looking at sculptures for inspiration, rather than hats. My first design didn’t quite sit so well – some engineering is required with millinery just to make it fit properly! It’s all about balance. I wanted something traditional, but with a twist to be modern, different, and Flow is what I came up with. I think it worked out well, I’m very proud of it.
Had you entered the competition in previous years?
I have entered five times, this is the biggest award in the country for milliners, and winning this year has given me some clarity into what I want to do. I appreciated that people liked it and the judges liked it, but most important is that I like it! I only create pieces that I love. I don’t want to make lots and lots of custom orders, where people pick and choose their designs. I like to dictate what I want to make; these are sculptural, artistic pieces, it’s a form of expression. I love creating something flamboyant that people are going to talk about, with a “wow” factor, to make people come up and tell you that you look beautiful. My clients have said to me, “Oh my gosh, I had so many nice compliments” and this is what I want, I want you to feel special. You don’t buy my pieces unless you want to attract some attention!
What are some other design elements that you incorporate into your hats?
I love working with velvet, and I love the vintage era. I also love silk abaca, it’s a banana silk fibre. For me it’s about silhouette, but it’s also about mood. During the long lockdown in Melbourne, I would be out on the walks which we were allowed to take during springtime and would look at the trees and think “I’m just going to make a beautiful floral something. Because that would make me happy!”
Finally, what sums up the art of millinery for you?
I find it fulfilling, creative and enjoyable. It’s poetic.