The Millinery Arts Alliance (MAA) is one of Chicago's premier organizations of professional hat makers and recently voted Victoria Magazine’s "Women Entrepreneurs of the Year" for 2002 (by a nationwide poll consisting of the magazines devoted readers). In the summer of 1995, several of these milliners banded together with a two-part goal: To continue the vanishing art of couture millinery and to provide hat lovers events at which to display their finery.
To introduce this group to the public, the milliners created La Fête des Catherinettes, the first American celebration of the traditional French festival of hat-makers and their patron saint, Catherine of Alexandria. The event was to consist of an opening night soiree, followed by a weekend of trunk shows at local boutiques. In looking for a venue for the opening reception, the MAA learned that Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and Chef Jean Joho were set to open a new French restaurant, Brasserie Jo. It was to reflect the elegant atmosphere of 1940’s Parisian nightspots, the perfect backdrop for the milliners’ creations. The party was enormously successful, raising funds for The Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, and attracting a crowd of glamorously hatted devotees of French-inspired style, both culinary and sartorial.
In fact, the visual effect of the restaurant filled with so much inimitable millinery inspired Richard Melman to invite the MAA and its clientele back on a regular basis beginning in February of 1996. Every first Thursday night of the month, they presented Les Chapeaux at Brasserie Jo. Each outing, a different milliner showcased her latest designs, with the hats available for purchase. Patrons who wore their hats to dinner received a complimentary "Chapeau au Chocolat." Chef Joho created this charming hat-shaped dessert especially for the event. Other millinery mavens stopped by for drinks at the elegant bar, and to admire one another’s fabulous toppers.
For La Fête des Catherinettes 1999, the MAA sought to integrate the soiree and trunk shows into a single millinery spectacular. The event was held at Kass Meridian in Chicago’s River North gallery district. The evening featured a stunning array of creations from the MAA designers. Partygoers tried on hats to their hearts content, all to the lilting melodies of a strolling French accordionist. Once again the beneficiary was the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization.
In 2000, La Fête des Catherinettes returned to Brasserie Jo as the Thursday evening of its annual Beaujolais Nouveau Festival. Patrons were able to sample the first wine of the season along with the freshest chapeaux.
Buoyed by the success of La Fête des Catherinettes, the Millinery Arts Alliance has gone on to create numerous events for the hat lover. In 1997, they began a series of Afternoon Hat Teas at the Drake Hotel. Patrons were encouraged to wear their finest chapeaux for the elegant English tea in the hotel’s charming Palm Court.
Beginning in 1997, MAA hatters also began participating in another event at Brasserie Jo, which has quickly become a springtime tradition, the annual Mothers’ Day Brunch. That same year, MAA members joined the Easter Brunch at another of Chicago’s noted hotels, the stylish Ritz-Carlton. At both events, the milliners showed their finest creations for spring as well as judging a contest for the most charming chapeaux.
The Millinery Arts Alliance has produced wonderful runway fashion shows featuring their unique creations. In 1997 and 1998 they were invited by The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to put on a noontime runway show of millinery under The Picasso in Daly Plaza. 1999 gave the milliners a chance to spread their artistic wings as they presented Surrealist Chapeaux," worn by muslin-wrapped models at The New Art Examiner’s twenty-fifth anniversary bash. Pieces included giant dragonflies from Loreta Corsetti, and potted live daffodils in a creation by Lisa Farrell.
The work of MAA members has been selected for numerous juried exhibitions at venues including Mindscape Gallery in Evanston, The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, and Around the Coyote Art Festival.
On the retail front, Millinery Arts Alliance members have participated in
group and duet trunk shows at stylish Chicago stores including Adelaide, Only She, Nordstrom, and Marshall Field’s. They have produced events at galleries and hair salons. MAA hatters also present numerous private showings at the homes of their most devoted clientele.
Members of the Millinery Arts Alliance have sought to give back to the community as well. In addition to raising funds for Y-ME, they have participated in charity fundraising events for organizations including The Hephzibah Children’s Association The Eleanor Women’s Foundation, Barat College, The Infant Welfare Society, The Chicago Historical Society, and The Chicago Architecture Foundation. They have been seen stylishly hatted and hard at work manning the phone bank for Chicago PBS affiliate, WTTW’s Winter Fund Drive.
In addition to this ambitious schedule of events, the Millinery Arts Alliance works as a trade organization for its members. Though their businesses are managed separately, members share resources for hard-to-find millinery supplies, do group ordering of items such as hatboxes, and frequently bounce ideas off one another. They chose to put the word "Arts" in the organization’s name to keep their focus clear. These are not hat manufacturers, but couture milliners in the truest sense. They create their hats by hand on a necessarily limited scale. Many MAA members have commented that it’s refreshing simply being around others in the same business. Laura states, "I love that a group of women in competitive businesses can work together as we do.