Milliner Magic: Meet China’s Only Classical Hat Maker, Elisabeth Koch

Our sister magazine beijingkids dedicates its latest issue to the makers of Beijing – the entrepreneurs, crafters, and the movers and shakers who provide new ways of experiencing this great city.

Fabulous or flamboyant headpieces? Whatever your taste, hats definitely add flair and personality to women’s fashion. In China, there’s only one classically trained milliner, and that’s Elisabeth Koch, whose product lines are divided into two: the Pink Label for unique hats, and the Blue Label with limited-edition but affordable headgear. Koch’s creations have been worn by royalty and celebrities and have gone to Royal Ascot, the Melbourne Cup, and weddings worldwide. Her work has been featured in high fashion publications around the world, including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Harper‘s Bazaar.

What inspired you to start your business?
Basically from the earliest stage I can remember, I’ve been making things: if it’s a skirt from umbrellas or brooches from old Italian silk ties that my father didn’t use anymore. I’d been always keeping things and making something out of them. So it was just really a matter of time when focused all this creative energy on one thing, and that turned out to be hats. But it was a process before I realized what it was. Even before I was working in banking I would come home and draw and knit and sew and make things. So it was very much something of a natural progression.

How did you face the first few challenges that came along your way?
When I started my business here in Beijing in 2007, the first challenges were, of course, the language barrier and finding materials. My Chinese was absolutely minimal and there was no millinery materials that you could find here. So it was really difficult. And when I came here there was no WeChat or things that we have now, so it was a very different time. We were all very much emailing. Besides that, the first thing that I needed to do was to design the logo, I have to get a website made, business cards printed, and all of that was, instead of digital, very physical: you’d go somewhere, you’d meet somebody in person. But I took Chinese lessons and it’s much better now.

Tell us a story that has helped you build your brand.
One of the best things came from wearing my craziest hats. I have, of course, wearable and crazy hats, but I like to wear the craziest ones to parties. There were so many parties here around the Olympics, between 2007 and 2009, and everything was opening up. I don’t know how I did get into these parties, and of course, I went there with a lobster in my head, or the Eiffel Tower, or something that’s very much attention-grabbing, or even a motorcycle on my head. And so being in those parties with crazy hats, I would get a lot of attention, especially from magazines. So without really realizing this would have really happened, looking back it was clear that people would talk to me saying, “Oh, I work at Harper’s Bazaar,” “I work at Vogue, can we use your hats in photo shoots,” and I was like, “Sure, no problem.” And that’s how it all started, and honestly being here in just six months, I had 12 pages in Harper’s Bazaar which was amazing!

We know that Beijing is a land of opportunities so what can you tell people who are planning to set up small businesses here?
If you’re planning on setting up a small business in Beijing, I would say go for it, try it! There’s so much you can do here. Don’t let the language barrier or anything hold you back.

What’s that one thing that makes you stay in Beijing?
Definitely the opportunity. There are so many things that come with the fact that I make hats that I would have never imagined. Obviously, I’ve been here longer than most expats. I’m in my 12th year right now and even then, more and new things come out. For example, besides the fact that I make hats, I also give hat making workshops and hat lectures; I’ve given so many presentations, like the history of hats, how to wear hats, my own personal story of giving two TED talks… all of this stuff has come out of the fact that I just make hats! It’s such a fun thing because hats are just visible and I just love them.

Be fab with Elisabeth Koch’s hats! Visit her millinery at Glory Gardens Club House D-102, Xingfucun Zhonglu, Chaoyang 北京市朝阳区幸福村中路锦绣园公寓D座102单元 (139 1043 1832,

This article originally appeared on our sister site beijingkids. Read the previous installments of this feature here.

Photo: Vogue China, Lens Studio.

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