Jill Humphries: Racing Royalty Milliner

The moment Jill Humphries started making hats, she has been winning awards. Literally. The first piece she ever sold was made for Jac Russo, who won Fashions on the Field at the Geelong Cup with a hat that Jill Humphries made. Since then, Jill’s designs have been gracing the heads of racing royalty and celebrities. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look into her process and inspiration.

Jill Humphries: Racing Royalty Milliner | Track Mode

A leather piece from Jill Humphries that I wore last year

Did you like wearing hats as a child?

I have always worn hats from early on, dressing up with beanies, fedoras and berets.

What was the first hat you ever bought?

Pretty sure it was a beret — I lived in them in the ‘90s.

What was your biggest challenge when you were just getting started in millinery?

The biggest challenge was trying to learn everything. Millinery is hugely skilled and there are so many different techniques you could study for years and then one day you learn something new that can change your whole way of thinking and approach. I have been making headwear for about six years.

“My beautiful husband brings me a tea or coffee in bed then the kids come running in for morning cuddles. Then the cats jump up, then Max the dog. So I start every day with cuddles.”

Which milliners do you look up to?

I adore vintage millinery and purchase vintage milliners pieces to study the skills and style. Other milliners are the theatrical milliners such as Rose Hudson and Philip Rhodes — with their backgrounds they create phenomenal structures that always make me smile.

You can make your own hats — do you still buy from others? Who is your favourite milliner to buy from?

Only beanies like this handmade one from Poland — I love to support artists that have a passion for what they do, and what I can’t do (knitting never a strong point) and I love that a beanie can be art also.

Jill Humphries: Racing Royalty Milliner | Track Mode

What are your current sources of inspiration?

I tend to have a strong focus on nature. My mum always grows roses and is in the garden all the time. From a young age we were always outside and I think this is reflected in my florals — but in leather.

What’s a typical day like?

My beautiful husband brings me a tea or coffee in bed then the kids come running in for morning cuddles. Then the cats jump up, then Max the dog. So I start every day with cuddles. The kids head to school and then I visit my local every morning (the Diplomat in Highett) for coffee — these guys are my version of morning chats by the coffee machine. They all know my name, my order, how crazy my season is going and if I need one coffee or two. Then it’s home to work through the orders until school pick up. In carnival season, Paul gets home and takes over the cooking, etc. so I can continue to work. 

Please tell me about your process when designing a hat. Do you draw by hand?

I don’t draw — I work organically and the leather will turn into what flower I think it will suit best. Each leather is a different weight so it’s a matter of feeling the leather and thinking about how it will work.

Jill Humphries: Racing Royalty Milliner | Track Mode

Buttons and bows in lovely teal. Image from Jill Humphries’s Instagram page

How long does it take to make a piece?

A friend once said to me — when people ask you about how long a piece takes you respond with how many years of training and working in that field you have had. No one just picks up materials and makes a hat — there is learning the technique, sourcing the materials, experimenting and then creating. The creating is the last part of the process so it is hard to put a time frame on a piece.

Your creations have graced the heads of many celebrities. Is there anyone in particular you’d still like to design for?

I would love to make a piece for Cate Blanchett. I adore how she can carry off theatrical one day and classic the next.

Which is your favourite race day?

I love Caulfield Cup as I get to see many friends I have made over the years at the track and have a relaxed bet. But then Oaks day takes me to a different place entirely — the millinery award is so interesting and creative.

What is it about your designs that stand out?

Maybe because I use non-traditional methods and materials. My leatherwork is always in high demand and I think it is because it’s feminine yet edgy (and perfect for the Melbourne weather).

Jill Humphries: Racing Royalty Milliner | Track Mode

Lavender Rose. Image from Jill Humphries’s Instagram page

What is the process like for a bespoke headpiece? How should they prepare for this conversation with you?

Usually they will send me images of a dress. I then suggest they look at my Instagram account and send me images of my pieces they are drawn to so I can get a feel for their style. From there I suggest colours and shapes that I feel will compliment the dress, and we begin.

Melbourne Racing Club is the latest of many to announce that they’re changing the rules for Fashions on the Field, taking it from catwalk to digital. How do you feel about this?

I am a little sad as I love watching the fashions and feel it is such a fun part of the day. My concern is that a photo can’t capture the 3D nature of an outfit. Millinery can have elements at the back that might tie an entire outfit together and this attention to detail may be lost. Hopefully this is covered through when the judges are reviewing the finalists 

Is it true that this negatively affects your business and that of other milliners?

I don’t think we would be able to tell until after the season has run its course. 

Many seem to think that FOTF is on the decline. Do you agree? How do you feel about this?

I don’t think it is on the decline – I think it is taking a new format. Whether that format stays or not is to be seen and decided by the key stakeholders and sponsors

What should we expect from your creations this year?

My signature leather and some new cutting edge concepts to be revealed … 

Jill Humphries: Racing Royalty Milliner | Track Mode

Silver Daisies. Image from Jill Humphries’s Instagram page

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Track Mode is a horse racing and fashion site founded and curated by Nina O’Brien. Subscribe to our newsletter to get exclusive race day fashion edits straight to your inbox! You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google+.

Treat yourself to our guide to Spring Racing Carnival 2016 to get the best out of the season! You’ll find racing fashion inspiration, guides to horse racing, and more interviews with the most important personalities in the horse racing industry.

You can shop for Jill Humphries’s headpieces on her website and Instagram page.