Hip tour features instructor’s hat designs
By Angela Long
Aug. 30, 2016
When nearly 12 million Canadians think back to a hot summer night in late August, they will remember a man diagnosed with terminal brain cancer singing his heart out. They will remember metallic leather suits – silver, fuchsia, turquoise, gold. They will remember hats embellished with lush bands and jaunty feathers.
Twenty-year-old Troy Biliski, full-time student at the Haliburton School of Art and Design, remembers that final concert of The Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour broadcast globally by CBC on Aug. 20.
“The music was OK, “ he says. “I have to sit down with it and give it a chance.”
Biliski was much more interested in lead singer Gord Downie’s hats.
“It was awesome to see millinery on a global scale,” he says, adjusting the hand-made bowler he wears every day despite the heat.
Across the hall, music plays from the HSAD studio where Biliski plans to spend the evening. He removes a grey straw hat with an orange paisley band from his backpack, one he saves “for special occasions.” Another hat, green straw he identifies as “cocchinelle” with a pink band and white polka dots is a gift for Erin, the studio technician.
“My favourite hat that Downie wore was the white one with the peacock feather,” he says. “But all of the hats had Karyn’s flair.”
Karyn Ruiz, owner of Toronto’s 26-year-old traditional millinery, Lilliput Hats, and long-time seasonal instructor at HSAD taught Biliski everything he knows about hats. During Millinery: The Art of Hat Making from July 11 to 15, Biliski learned how to use a wooden block mould, create a crown line, stiffen a brim. Despite Ruiz’s amazing teaching abilities, Biliski remembers the feeling like “something was brewing” for his teacher. And it was.
In early July, Toronto-based designer Izzy Camilleri, creator of The Tragically Hip’s tour wardrobe, a tour that may very well be the group’s last, asked Ruiz if she’d like to design Downie’s hats.
“It was a week before I was due to teach in Haliburton,” Ruiz says in a phone interview with the Echo from her Little Italy shop. Her answer? “A huge yes!”
The 15-stop tour began on July 22. Ruiz got to work. While teaching in Haliburton, she sent her assistants in Toronto instructions for completing the first prototype, adding the final touches upon her return.
Downie provided “a really old picture of Bob Dylan from the ’70s,” to guide Ruiz’s creative muse.
“He was very hands on,” she says, helping the milliner choose felt colour, bands, feathers. Downie was “very comfortable with going over the top,” she says. The singer, who is over six feet tall, was the type of person who could “carry all of this really well,” she says.
All of this meant “stylized” Homburg hats made of 100 per cent rabbit-fur felt in rare shades such as lavender-grey, hen feathers Ruiz “dyed crazy colours,” or distressed to look like grass, even porcupine quills.
“We wanted to build on colour, texture, height and movement,” she says.
Ruiz, who began her career as a milliner when she tried to register for an already-full tap-dancing class and settled for hat-making instead, has followed The Hip since their career took off in the ’90s. She calls the typical Hip fan an everyman, similar to Downie’s persona, a fan who might wear a Hip T-shirt to a concert, a ball cap.
“But as the tour went on, I noticed photos of people in the audience wearing gold and sparkly jackets and costumey fedoras with feathers,” she says, paying homage to a man whose costume choice glittered with the celebration of life.
And Ruiz payed homage too, with every stitch, with every band of hand-pleated silk chiffon, metallic-studded ribbon, with every vintage feather of ostrich, pheasant. For years Ruiz had been collecting such millinery treasures, storing them between acid-free tissue in drawers filled with cedar, waiting for a moment like this.
“I get emotional even now while speaking to you about it,” Ruiz says.
She listened to Hip music while she worked, sometimes straight through the night, infusing each step of the centuries-old hat-making process with the respect and love she feels for someone who has been called a national hero, who Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after attending the final concert in Kingston, tweeted would be “Forever in our hearts and playlists.”
Aware of the the potentially macabre aspect of designing an object that would touch the left temporal lobe where Downie’s cancerous tumour lay, Ruiz chose to focus on remaining positive. She injected “fun and joy” into her creations. In what Ruiz calls “my little love letter to him,” she sewed silk-screened, hand-written lyrics into the hats’ linings – a secret act Downie discovered only upon the hats’ delivery.
The white hat, which Ruiz named “Constellation,” contained lyrics from Bobcaygeon: “cause it was in Bobcaygeon, where I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.”
The entire experience has made Ruiz feel “an even greater love and respect for Gord Downie,” someone she calls “authentic, unaffected.”
Ruiz, who has designed hats for stars such as Rachel McAdams, Whoopi Goldberg and Celine Dion, says, “He doesn’t have any of the trappings of a rock star.”
During the tour, the singer sent Ruiz numerous texts expressing his appreciation for her creations.
“He even called me at home to thank me just 20 minutes before going on stage in Toronto.”
Ruiz attended one of the Toronto concerts, compliments of the Hip. On three-storey high monitors Ruiz saw her hats like never before, every inch of every moment of her experience magnified.
“It was one of the most incredibly personal concerts I’ve ever been to,” she says noting how Downie seemed to be able to look right at you. Connecting. Revealing. One star at a time.