Minneapolis hat designer puts a modern twist on an old tradition

The milliner brings the art of women’s hat design to northeast Minneapolis.

Hats designed by Karen Morris sit on display in her shop in Northeast Minneapolis Friday, Oct. 13.

Courtney Deutz

Hats designed by Karen Morris sit on display in her shop in Northeast Minneapolis Friday, Oct. 13.

Maddy Folstein

Modern hat designs usually encompass baseball hats and beanies. 

Karen Morris, a women’s hat designer, is reimagining the form for a modern, elegant audience who isn’t just looking to go to the Kentucky Derby. 

“When I was young, I always thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a fashion designer.’ … I loved beauty and fashion very much,” Morris said. “But the problem was, when I grew up, I found out that I don’t draw. I can’t draw.” 

Morris worked in advertising before finding her place in fashion design.

“I met my husband about eight years ago, and he … brought me to the Royal Ascot, [a horse race], in England, and we would dress up and wear the hats. I really fell in love and [hoped] that I could make my dreams come true,” Morris said. 

By studying alone for a year and then seeking out well-known milliners as mentors, Morris developed a detail-oriented skill set. After moving to the Twin Cities in 2009, she turned her experience into Karen Morris Millinery in 2011. The brand produces high couture hats, both as ready-to-wear designs and custom-made pieces. 

“I have been in the Twin Cities … for about eight years. The first three years, nobody knew about me. … They would look at the hats and say, ‘Oh no, I can’t wear this on the street,” Morris said. “After a few more years, … they started to get very excited because … they just felt like, ‘For my whole, whole life, I haven’t tried it before, so why not!’”

Although a Karen Morris Millinery design will cost hundreds of dollars, the lofty price tag is indicative of the work and attention that goes into each design.

“[The prices] are because of the materials. They’re all imported materials,” Morris said. “My hours are the other reason — the shortest time for the simplest hat … takes about three hours. … If you buy any hat in a department store, 1,000 other people are going to have that same design.”

Morris’ fall and winter 2017 designs range from whimsical, feather-adorned headpieces to more practical felt fedoras, which match trends in hat design. 

“Hats are part of the [outfit] that we look at, and in Minnesota, it’s really important that it serves a function and has to look good,” said Marilyn DeLong, an apparel design professor at the University of Minnesota. 

Even in her more avant-garde pieces, Morris tries to adhere to simpler hat styles. 

“I try to do some crazy or [more] innovative designs, but I find that it’s not me. I don’t want to force myself to make a hat that I don’t like,” Morris said.

Whether the design is made from metal or felt, hats are often worn to make a personal statement with an outfit. 

“I think that … people wear a hat … to be noticed in a way,” DeLong said. “People feel that the hat needs to have some individuality … and speak to their own personality.” 

Morris hopes that every customer finds a hat that makes them feel elegant for any occasion. 

“I just want people, when they wear my hats, [to feel] like a fair lady, like Audrey Hepburn,” Morris said.