By ASHLEY ANDERSON
It first began as an attempt to stand out in the enormous crowd at Churchill Downs. Two years later, itâ€™s transformed into a full-fledged business idea for â€œThe Hat Girls,â€ Kate Welsh and Rachel Bell, whoâ€™ve garnered popular buzz at the Kentucky Derby by donning incredible, one-of-a-kind, show-stopping toppers.
The best friends and fashionistas who met at duPont Manual High School, made a splash at Derby 137 with matching wide-brimmed hats crafted entirely of brunette-colored faux hair; a towering concoction of cream-colored pheasant feathers served as an encore for Derby 138. Their headgear is so attention-grabbing, Derby attendees have offered $1,500 on the spot to swipe the girlsâ€™ hats off their heads. Rap group Salt-n-Pepa and Coach Rick Pitino even approached Bell and Welsh about the possibility of making them personalized headwear for future Derbys. â€œThe celebrities were asking to get their picture with us, and so that was kind of like, OK, weâ€™ve got something going here,â€ Welsh said.
In January, the duo launched their own millinery business, The Hat Girls, encouraging men and women to share in the show-stopping experience, whether at Derby or another special occasion. â€œWeâ€™ve been planning on starting a business together for about 10 years,â€ said Welsh, who graduated from fashion school in Chicago. â€œWeâ€™ve both always been into fashion, and so itâ€™s kind of something weâ€™d always talked about.â€
Now living together in New York, Welsh and Bell are temporarily back in Louisville to produce bright, bold headpieces for those looking to make a statement on the first Saturday in May. Every Saturday throughout April from noon to 4 p.m., The Hat Girls will host a workshop at Blink Boutique, 3706 Lexington Road, which will serve as their â€œhome baseâ€ for selling their extravagant merchandise. A few other boutiques around town will also carry The Hat Girls brand in the coming month.
What separates Bell and Welsh from other milliners is their desire to take each individualâ€™s personal story and bring it to life in full color atop his or her head. â€œA lot of people make these custom hats but theyâ€™re not one-of-a-kind,â€ Bell said. â€œTheyâ€™ll make this awesome hat, and somebody else can see it and go on the website and get it. We specifically bought one of each color hat and base, so thereâ€™s probably only three hats that we have in the house that are even able to be remade.â€
No material is off limits for Bell and Welsh. On The Hat Girlsâ€™ custom order form, they ask for each customerâ€™s color scheme, preferred size of hat and inspiration, then impart their own creativity to invent an individualized â€œoff-the-wall, exciting, non-conservative hat.â€ Fascinators are available as well â€“ The pair recently fashioned one together with branches and bamboo. â€œWe like to use different materials,â€ Welsh said. â€œWe definitely have the sinamay and the normal millinery materials, but we like to bring different stuff into it.â€
For those more comfortable with a classic Derby look, The Hat Girls offer conservative headgear as well. â€œWe are doing a lot more toned-down and classic type hats, but I would say 90 percent of our hats and fascinators are one-of-a-kind,â€ Welsh said. And, should you feel yourself lacking inspiration, The Hat Girls have created a collection of headpieces ready to wear.
â€œThereâ€™s definitely something for everybody style-wise, price-wise,â€ Bell said. â€œI think Kate and I are able to make (our customers) feel like theyâ€™re the best in the world and theyâ€™re going to look the best at the Derby.â€
As for Bell and Welsh, the two can be seen wearing a combination of leather and lace at the 2013 Kentucky Oaks and a yet-to-be-determined design made of bright blue crocodile skin on Derby. For the past two years, the young women have easily achieved their goal of standing out in the crowd at Churchill Downs. But, with their show-stopping hats now available to the public, you might have to look a little harder to find them at the track this year.
For more information on The Hat Girls, visit www.thehatgirls.com, call 502.619.3460 or 502.550.0088, e-mail email@example.com or â€œLIKEâ€ â€œThe Hat Girlsâ€ on Facebook. For more information on The Hat Girls workshops at Blink Boutique, call 502.899.9885, visit www.blinklouisville.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to the Saturday workshops, The Hat Girlsâ€™ creations will also be available on Thursdays and Fridays at Blink.
Contact writer Ashley Anderson at email@example.com.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune