Jenny Pfanenstiel was living in Chicago and making beautiful hats there when she accepted an invitation from a friend to come down to Louisville to sell her hats before Derby. She was so successful on that first foray into the Kentucky hat culture that she started coming back every year and staying six weeks at a time. After doing this for seven years, she decided to move here full-time. She now owns Formé Millinery in Mellwood Arts Center and also sells her hats around town, notably at the Kentucky Derby Museum, where she is the Official Milliner. Using old-school techniques, she has crafted her own style, with each hat being a unique work of art unto itself — she compares them to mini-sculptures. Each hat takes three to four days to create; consider that time commitment when you discover that she made over 500 hats for Vineyard Vines this year. In her spare time, she has also authored a book, The Making of a Milliner, and creates patterns for McCall’s. Welcome Jenny as today’s FACE of Louisville!
You majored in fashion design in college. What first piqued your interest in millinery?
I lived in Chicago for 16 years. While there, I met a milliner visiting from New York, who gave a talk about her millinery business of 35 years. Since I had always loved hats, I approached her and wanted to know what I could do to learn the craft. She suggested I learn “blocking,” the molding of material over the blocks/forms. Since I had a fascination with vintage items, the idea of working with old hat blocks and creating hats from an object that was once worked on by someone 60, 70, 100 years ago, excited me.
You were working in Chicago and started coming down to Louisville during Derby season. What made you decide to move here permanently?
While living in Chicago, I met an artist from Louisville. She saw my hats and thought I must come down and sell my hats during Derby. Honestly, it never crossed my mind at the time. The next year I visited my new friend during Derby, made appointments with a couple of stores and sold my hats to them. It was an instant success. The following six years I visited Louisville to create hats for the Derby season. I would typically stay for six weeks at a time. Needless to say, I saw a lot of Louisville and fell in love with the people and area. I was also so amazed with how supportive Louisville is for small businesses … a very different environment from a big city like Chicago.
Louisville became a second home to me, and I hated leaving after the Derby season. My husband and I always talked about moving to a slower-paced environment and starting a family. We decided to take the plunge. We sold our house and moved to Louisville. It was the best decision we ever made. I was able to finally open a storefront and grow my business. My husband and I eventually bought our dream home in the country and started a family. Life is good.
You are a true artist, with each work being a handcrafted, unique piece. You also employ old methods in your craftsmanship — for example, your machine that braids from the 1800s. Tell us about how you craft each piece.
I love working with old objects and techniques and putting my own spin to it. With regards to my braid machine from the 1800s, it is a machine I treasure greatly. I love to experiment, and when I learned about this machine, I knew I needed to find one and figure out how to use it. I came across a gentleman who refurbished these old machines, but I didn’t know a whole lot about using them. I made some phone calls and was directed to a woman in Chicago who used to make hats with these machines but had closed her hat business 40 years ago. She was willing to meet with me (and my machine), so I drove to Chicago. She was 85 years old and so kind. Her hands were frail, but she remembered the basic techniques and showed me how to get started. It was a wonderful three hours. When I returned to Louisville, I practiced and practiced. Typically these machines are used to make traditional brimmed hats, which I have done. But after working with my machine more and more, I noticed that I could do so much more with it. I began creating sculptural braid hats with it. This technique has since become a staple of my brand, and I have created some magnificent pieces, which even surprise myself.
I also create hats by using a 100+-year-old technique called blocking. This includes molding straw and wool over old wooden forms of all different shapes and sizes. This process can take quite some time to perfect. Then once the crown and brim are blocked, stiffened and dried, I then sew the crown and brim together. From there, I create the embellishments that are going to be included and sew those on. It is about a three- to four-day process to create just one hat. I constantly have material on my blocks, so it is a constant rotation of blocking and finishing.
Any advice for Derby goers on how to pick the perfect hat for their dress?
I would love to tell everyone that every hat looks great on each person, but unfortunately there are certain styles that complement one person’s physique more than others. If you are on the shorter side (like myself), a large brim hat tends to swallow you. Large brimmed hats look lovely on taller women. If you have a fuller face or short hair, go with a flip brim to show off your features.
With regards to fascinators, most people can wear them.
As far as color, though, I love a good color blocking look. I recommend having a shade or two from your dress in the hat to bring it all together, as if the hat was made for the dress. If you visit a milliner, like myself, this can be easily accomplished, and we can even incorporate material from the dress into the hat.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
Though I have a full schedule year round because I create hats for all seasons and occasions, not to mention my new ready-to-wear line and collaborations, Derby season is especially busy. My Derby season starts almost immediately after Derby. Starting in June people are already requesting their next season’s hats, and it gets extra busy starting in December. I wish I could just create hats all of the time, but owning your own business entails so much more than that. I usually spend the first two days answering emails or hat inquiries, sending out daily marketing campaigns, preparing hats for photo shoots, packing up orders to be shipped out, following up with my intern, seamstresses and sales rep, and ordering supplies. The rest of the week I am meeting with clients, wholesalers, participating in trunk shows, blocking hats, sewing hats, creating embellishments, creating hat collections for my ready-to-wear lines, creating hat designs/patterns for McCall Patterns, sending hat photos to Covet Fashion to be featured on their style app, traveling around the country/world giving hat presentations and teaching hat-making workshops, and participating in TV appearances and interviews. The rest of the time, I do my best to fit in a meeting with my accountant, pay bills, eat, sleep, see my daughter and husband, and plan the future of my business. Luckily I am a pretty organized person, and after 10 years of being in the hat business, I am able to manage things pretty well, though you never seem to have enough time with family. I feel my efforts are beginning to pay off, and I do see a light at the end of the tunnel that will allow me to continue to grow my business and have a rewarding work/life balance.
What advice do you treasure?
The advice I have always received from my mother: “You have to BELIEVE!” And believe, I did!
Fill in the blank. You’ll never see me without my _________.
Tell us some of your favorite local restaurants.
My favorite go-to place even when I visited Louisville is Blue Dog Bakery. Within the last eight years I have been eating there, I have only had one item, the Tuna Caper Sandwich. It is literally the best sandwich I have ever had, and I can’t bring myself to try anything else when I go there. Other favorites include El Mundo and my new fave Pho Ba Luu.
What are three of your favorite things right now?
Vintage crinoline, the tulip tree in my front yard, listening to Yann Tiersen
Thank you to Adele Reding Photography for the wonderful photos.
Read about more inspiring women in Louisville in our FACES of Louisville weekly features here.