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Jennifer Ouellette: Needle, Thread and Hats!

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Feathered fascinators at royal weddings and extravagant chapeaus at famous horse races are just a glimpse into the world of millinery created by University of Missouri alumna Jennifer Ouellette.

Millinery is the art of making hats of all descriptions for women; hatmakers craft hats for men, although Jennifer’s headwear includes covers for men. In the haute couture world of 18th century France, the “marchandes de mode,” or “modistes,” provided the extravagant and elaborate hats that ladies of nobility sought, and the trend continued both in France and jumping the Pond to the newly independent America. Wealthy, fashionable ladies considered their hats an essential part of their wardrobe, and, although the trend waned through the America of the 1960s, Jeanne Lanvin and Mr. John are still recognized names in the world of millinery.

Developing Her Craft
Jennifer Ouellette can easily be described as a 21st century modiste. She’s a St. Louis, Missouri, native and 1994 graduate of Mizzou’s department of textile and apparel management. “In 1994 I did a study abroad program at the London College of Fashion and an internship with milliner Stephen Jones,” she described the beginning of her career path. “After my internship, I enjoyed millinery so much that I continued employment with Stephen Jones.

“A year later, I returned to the U.S. and worked in the New York City fashion industry for a few years. After that exposure I didn’t like the idea of contributing to fashion’s dark practices, such as labor and harm to the environment,” she continued. “Also, my experience with fashion egos was very similar to the film The Devil Wears Prada. I decided I would do my own business with my values or leave the industry entirely.”    

“My parents are both creative types,” Jennifer said of her early inspiration. “My father has obtained many patents for engineering inventions, and my mother owned a vintage clothing store while I was growing up. I think my design philosophy is a combination of their guidance.

Jennifer began her millinery business in 1996; today, she curates a collection that’s wearable and whimsical in a second-floor studio at 23 West 36th Street in New York City, in the garment district near the Empire State Building. “There are nine of us in our NYC studio. Our fair-trade studio in the Dominican Republic employs 14 women, and some of these seamstresses have been with me from the beginning.”

The Art
It’s an exacting trade to learn. Jennifer uses traditional techniques; the studio is filled with antique blocks used for shaping hats, and seamstresses use antique German sewing machines and also hand-sew many pieces that require exacting use of needle and thread. High-quality, sustainable materials are sourced from all over the globe. 

Jennifer is proud that she has been able to establish her shop and global business on her own terms and, at the same time, share her values of fair trade and equitable pay and teaching skills. “True millinery is an old craft that requires handwork. Handwork requires experienced labor. It is amazing that we create things made by hand in today’s fashion environment,” she affirmed. “My company has always been dedicated to fair trade and sustainability, before it was trendy and cool. The sustainable and fair-trade movement has a long way to go, but I’m glad that its finally gaining some momentum.”

Last month, Jennifer was in Paris for Fashion Week. “I show my collection twice a year here for international buyers. The show will be in the Jardin de Tuileries, across the street from the Louvre.” It’s a romantic location reminiscent of Rose Bertin, milliner to Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, both of whom helped establish Paris as the early capital of fine fashion, and its later style icon Coco Chanel.

“In April 2017, it was an exciting milestone of my career to interview my mentor, Stephen Jones, on stage in my hometown at the St Louis Art Museum!” she said. The discussion was during an exhibit, The Hats of Stephen Jones, a special installation of eight hats designed by him and following a lecture during which he discussed the inspiration for his designs and their connections to the history of hats and art.

The Future
Jennifer gives us a peek into current trends. “Headbands are a strong trend at the moment, the bigger the better! But my favorite ongoing trend is having personal style. Most of our customers have great style and like to express themselves with their accessories. My personal vice is vintage or second-hand instead of new!” 

As with many women, juggling a professional career with one’s personal life can be tough. “It’s a balancing act that’s hard to accomplish,” she noted. “The best advantage is having a supportive family and friends. The key is to be mentally strong and keep a focus on what is important.”   

To the next generation of female leaders, Jennifer gives affirming advice. “It’s hard for us to navigate leadership,” she reflected. “We sometimes question our remarks since we have learned to be nice girls our whole lives. We don’t like to offend anyone. Speak your mind! If a man can say it, so can you.”  

Jennifer’s inspired by two favorite quotes. “He who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life,” the words of George Sand, speaks to the creativity in all of us. “Without our fully realizing it, flowers would become for us an expression in form of that which is most high, most sacred, and ultimately formless within ourselves. Flowers, more fleeting, more ethereal, and more delicate than the plants out of which they emerged, would become like messengers from another realm, like a bridge between the world of physical forms and the formless,” Eckhart Tolle’s words, are descriptive of her own craft.

Jennifer’s looking forward to new seasons and a new year. “Here comes 2020, and the hat adventures continue! I hope to continue contributing to the globe in a positive manner.”

You can reach out to Jennifer Ouellete through email at, visit her website at or find her on social media at @jenoart.