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Hats off to an alumna

Why designer Jennifer Ouellette’s accessories turn heads in Hollywood

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Oct. 13, 2009
Jennifer Ouellete

Designer Jennifer Ouellette created this tiger-pawprint hat to honor her alma mater, where she was a guest lecturer this week. The Mizzou alumna's millinery work has been embraced by top fashion magazines and Hollywood stars.

It’s probably safe to say that MU alumna Jennifer Ouellette has made it as a designer. Red-carpet reports from Hollywood events show fashionista A-listers such as Gwen Stefani, Sarah Jessica Parker and Angelina Jolie sporting Jennifer Ouellette Inc.'s meticulously hand-stitched headbands, hats and hairclips. Her work appears in the editorial pages of Vogue, In Style, Glamour and Harper's Bazaar.

Presenting to Department of Textile and Apparel Management students at her alma mater this week, though, the Tiger milliner says that while she’s thrilled when high-profile stylists and celebrities appreciate her work, her focus remains on the average Jane.

Showing an image of Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester juxtaposed with one of a fresh-faced Illinois shopper who won a recent promotional contest — both young women in the same extra-wide Jennifer Ouellette turban headband — she notes, with a gesture toward the teen fan: “At the end of the day … this is our most important customer.”

They just don’t make hats like they used to

You can’t get much hipper than young Hollywood for endorsing a fashion accessory. Contradictorily, though, Ouellette sets trends by resisting trendiness. Her classic style is influenced by childhood days spent in her mother’s St. Louis vintage clothing store more than by what Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are wearing this week (though, one should note, both pop icons often don Jennifer Ouellette pieces).

Ouellette’s approach to her work is firmly grounded in old-school millinery traditions. The headband construction technique, designed to maximize comfort and durability, is patented. Top-quality materials are imported from around the world – felt from the Czech Republic, ribbons from Switzerland, straw from Ecuador.  All of her products are painstakingly hand sewn by a small staff of highly skilled craftsmen she trains personally to work in the firm’s New York and Dominican Republic studios. She oversees every detail, even regulating the length of the thread on each needle. It’s a dying art, she laments, joking to students, “I’m like a dinosaur standing here.”

Discerning shoppers appreciate the diligence. While remodeling her home, a loyal Kuwaiti customer had velvet-covered display racks built into her closet specifically to hold her Jennifer Ouellette pieces, a collection the client says must be preserved for future generations.

“People love detail. They love the specialness of it,” Ouellette says. “It’s a little piece of history also. I’m doing something people don’t do anymore. People don’t do hand-sewing.”

Big in Japan

Jennifer Ouellete's hats

Designer Jennifer Ouellette shows hats and headbands from her collection to a group of Department of Textile and Apparel Management students Monday. Each of her company's meticulously crafted pieces is hand-sewn.

In the United States, Jennifer Ouellette products are sold in small boutiques and in Barneys New York department stores, where they dominate the hair-accessories and hats sections. Ouellette also has an international clientele, with buyers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

On a recent trip to Tokyo, Ouellette says, she had been in the city a mere 15 minutes before she saw a girl dismounting a bicycle wearing a Jennifer Ouellette piece — a common sight, she soon discovered, around the city’s boutiques. While preparing for a clinic at Aqua Girl, one of her biggest Japanese clients, the designer says, she was stunned to see the store's entire staff arrive in Jennifer Ouellette gear.

“I felt like I was in a dream. After so many years of working so hard, to be standing in the store in Tokyo and all the sales girls came in wearing my pieces,” recalls Ouellette, who established her independent firm in 1996. “I just wanted to stop and take it all in.”

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012