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Sydney Opera House

New milliner thrives at OA

“I feel lucky…”

After four years in the UK – the first as a student at London’s Kensington and Chelsea College and the rest as milliner for top international designers Stephen Jones and Misa Harada – OA’s recently appointed new assistant milliner, Rebecca Willis, returned to Sydney for a specific purpose: to make a wedding dress. “In Uni I’d promised a friend that when she got married I’d make her dress,” she says, with a smile. “I did exactly that.”

In Sydney, Willis, who has a Theatre and Film Design degree from Charles Stuart University and who had managed to gain a foothold in the extremely competitive UK millinery world, found it almost impossible to break into the fashion world. “Getting work experience, or even making contact with people, proved very difficult,” she remembers. Not being one to give up easily, Willis did eventually find work experience that turned into part-time paid work with Embellish Atelier in Rozelle. To make ends meet, she signed up as a delivery officer with Australia Post.

When a friend passed on an ad for a milliner’s position in OA’s Wardrobe Department, she jumped at the opportunity. “The first time I walked in here I was gobsmacked; it was sensory overload,” she recalls. A few months down the track, she’s beginning to feel more settled.

But those first weeks were a steep learning curve. To begin with, the Company’s hats are made to last at least 20 years, and thus are constructed in a very different way from fashion hats. “I’ve had to learn new construction techniques, and to use materials that I’ve never used before.”

In the fashion industry, Willis did not have to contend with wigs either – fashion hats go straight on people’s heads. By contrast, OA’s milliners have to allow an extra centimetre for a wig made by the Company’s wigmakers, and two centimetres for a commercially made hat. And the cover’s head measurements may be different from those of the principal singer. “If the difference is small, you can pad out the hat to fit someone with a smaller head. But if the difference is over three centimetres, you have to make a separate hat.”

So far Willis’ biggest show has been Gale Edwards’ new production of La bohème. She loved collaborating with Costume Designer Julie Lynch. “She’s very specific about her materials; I had a box of trimmings and she chose what she liked and where she wanted it to go while I made notes,” she recalls, adding that “if something really wouldn’t work, you could explain to her why and she would compromise.”

Willis has enjoyed encountering unfamiliar new hat shapes in La bohème. “I’ve seen pictures of tricornes and bicornes, but I’ve never had the opportunity to make them from scratch,” she says. She’s had help from freelancer Rick McGill, famous for his amazing My Fair Lady hats. “If I could get inside Rick’s brain and access just one tenth of what he knows, I’d be very happy,” Willis sighs. “He’s had a lot of patience with answering my sometimes slightly dumb questions.”

Some of the La bohème hats were adaptations from hats that Wardrobe Buyer Miranda Brock had sourced from the Internet. “Julie would often like an element of a bought hat, but ask for the overall look to be more 1920s. I’d cut and trim and rework the hat.”

In the Sydney summer season Willis mostly worked on revivals, which meant repairs rather than new hats. She did make a new mantilla for Carmen. “The original was routinely ripped off her head and smashed on stage. It kept breaking, so I made one in wire, which could be thrown and dropped without being damaged.”

With preparations for the winter season in full swing, Willis’s new life as a theatrical milliner is beginning to take shape. “When I first started training in London, they asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ and my answer was, ‘I want to learn millinery so that I can take it back into the theatrical world.’ That was always my aim. I feel incredibly lucky to have ended up with full-time work at OA, the only place in Australia that still has a thriving community of craftspeople.”