Plain Tiger Spotlight: Crystal Birch

Hats that Turn Heads

By Renee Fortune

South African milliner, Crystal Birch once took to the streets of Ireland wearing a lampshade on her head. When I first pictured it, I had a good giggle, thinking what a spectacle it must have been. But then I paused for a moment, pictured it, and thought, “why not?”

Crystal didn’t always want to be a milliner. She started off studying fashion at the Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion Design in Stellenbosch, South Africa, building a side hustle as a designer and seamstress for wedding and matric dance dresses. For some students of fashion, that’s where the journey begins and also where it ends. But Crystal wanted more. Her search for more took her into London’s metropolis of grey and concrete and relentless ambition. 
Here, she undertook a short course in millinery under the guidance of Noel Stewart and later, completed the practical component of the course at the studio of Piers Atkinson. 

Now if you know anything about Piers Atkinson, you’ll know that ‘avant garde’ is just not going to cut it. For all intents and purposes, you could think of Atkinson as fashion’s ultimate ‘Mad Hatter.’ If you’d like to wear a Barbie doll on your head, by all means, go ahead. Think a conical hat from the Middle Ages would fare well on a 21st-century catwalk? Not a problem. From Atkinson, Birch learnt to defy the bounds of conventional fashion, to throw caution to the wind, and to just, create and keep creating. 
Today, Crystal Birch is the owner of her own brand, The Real Crystal Birch as well as the heritage company, The Hat Factory. Her collection is quirky, but it’s still got all the classics. In it, you’ll find familiar characters like the archetypal straw sunhat, the good ol’ Fedora and the timeless Cowboy hat. But you’ll also find a touch of the oddball, something a little bit more eccentric, like her hand braided hat in Petersham fabric. It’s a piece that may be a hat, but may also be a turban, a Middle Eastern shemagh – or perhaps all three at the same time. Crystal’s hats are a celebration of creativity in the most wonderful way possible. And if ever you needed to make a statement, these are the hats to do it in.

With her ‘Happy Hats’ collection, launched in 2020, Birch made a foray into the emerging circular economy. By reusing old polyester, second-hand faux fur and plastic waste, she found inventive ways to make fashion pieces without using virgin materials, because as Crystal believes, “there is no planet B.”

In her formative years, Crystal started her brand by employing a handful of artisans working in a small studio. Today, she employs 20 workers who produce her designs, which were once destined solely for Cape Town’s Neighbourgoods Market. From there, her path expanded to local and international catwalks and saw her collaborating with some of the country’s most ubiquitous names in fashion. Most recently, we saw her work at South Africa’s S22 Fashion Week. 

You may have seen her designs on the heads of South African artists David Kramer, Jack Parow, Karen Zoid and Bonang Matheba – these trendsetters have become some of Crystal Birch’s biggest brand ambassadors. And dare I say, in her hats, they turn heads. 

Crystal Birch is a creative, a designer, a milliner, a mother. She’s South African. And she’s made her country proud.