National News

Derby-Fabulous Hats, Fresh From the Garment District

Posted April 28, 2018 3:59 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Earlier this month, with deadlines for the Kentucky Derby rapidly approaching, hat makers at Christine A. Moore Millinery worked at top speed, accompanied by the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and the steady whir of sewing machines.

“Everything we’re doing right now is for the Derby. If your event is after Derby, your hat gets made after Derby,” said Amy Teifer, 28, an assistant designer. “Tracy’s making the hat bodies. I’m cutting trim. Nicole is stitching trim onto hats.”

The studio may have been a bit busier than usual this year, as Christine A. Moore was named the featured milliner of the 144th Kentucky Derby — the first time Churchill Downs has bestowed the title.

In the front showroom, Carol Sulla, 26, guided two women through the collection. One tried on a bright yellow flower fascinator, looking to complement a blue-and-white Carolina Herrera dress.

Was the yellow too vivid? The designers could hand-paint white accents, Sulla suggested, to soften the effect. Did one petal fall over the eyes? It could be pinned up. For a bolder statement? Mount the flower from the fascinator onto a wide-brimmed hat, dyed to match the outfit. Sulla pulled out a color chart to determine the dress’ precise shade of blue.

The showroom, on the 10th floor of a West 34th Street building, offers everything from practical straw hats to fantastical creations topped off with teapots or lobsters. Fascinators (decorative headpieces) start at $120, while more elaborate hats can go upward of $1,000.

Every Moore creation, whether a custom order or part of a line slated for boutiques or the shop’s website, is made in the West 34th Street studio. Each hat is blocked over wooden forms, and smaller touches like cutting and stitching ribbon for the trim and hand-painting silk flowers, are also done on the premises.

Moore, 52, has worked closely with racetracks for over a decade. The Kentucky Derby Museum displays one of her hats. Mary J. Blige wore a Moore when she sang the national anthem at the 2012 Derby. In 2009, Moore designed her smallest hat yet — for the official 135th Kentucky Derby Barbie.

In 1990, Moore moved to New York to work with Rodney Gordon, a Broadway milliner, and soon began selling her own designs to local shops. She established her own business in 1994, moving to her current location in 1997.

Racing world clients include Joanne Zayat, 55, of Teaneck, New Jersey, who wore several Moore creations in 2015, when American Pharoah, the horse she owned with husband Ahmed Zayat, became the first and only competitor to win the Grand Slam of thoroughbred racing. (He achieved the Triple Crown and then went on to win a fourth race: the Breeders’ Cup Classic.)

“We’re ambassadors for racing,” said Blake Seidel, 59, Moore’s husband and business partner. “We’ll walk first-time customers through the process, and tell them what to expect at the Derby, what to wear.”

Moore said that she will often study people while conversing with them. “The clothing they choose, their stature, their personality,” she explained. “I can suggest a hat for your face shape, but then find your personality doesn’t match. I try to get into someone’s heart and mind.”

Each season, Moore’s largest hat is made for Patty Ethington of Shelbyville, Kentucky.

“I get a theme in mind, and she just runs away with it,” Ethington, 64, said. “Every year she amazes me. It’s hard to have hats fit just right. But she makes hats so you can wear them.”

And not just to the Derby. “I wear them to church the next day,” she said.

The showroom sees its fair share of walk-ins. “We’ve had people come off of cruise ships, and walk out with five hats,” Seidel said. “Every day is different. It’s always interesting — it’s New York, you know?”