Wayne County Milliner
Turns Heads with Captivating Chapeaux
Gena Conti’s inspired hat designs have
been featured for 13 consecutive years in the Kentucky Derby Museum’s
By Beth Dalbey (Patch Staff) July 18, 2015
Millinery designs by Gena Conti, pictured above,
have been selected for 13 consecutive years for the Kentucky Derby
Museum’s Derby Hat Exhibit. Some of her creations are also
shown in the gallery at the bottom of the page. (All photos courtesy
of Gena Conti Millinery)
You might think after the furlong Wyandotte milliner
Gena Conti just ran, she would take a break from designing and
making the elegant and sophisticated hats coyly perched on the
heads of glitterati all along the Triple Crown circuit.
“Thank God for horse racing,” says Conti.
It’s a frantic time of year – “like Christmas
around here,” she says – and months, weeks and days
of designing and creating the fashionable hats often come down
to a photo finish of sorts as she waits for final shipping instructions
to five-star hotels along the circuit.
“My head spins around Derby time,” she says. “It’s
a zoo. It’s lovely. I hardly sleep.”
But Conti barely paused when horses rounded the final turn to
the homestretch at the Preakness, the final leg of the Triple
Crown. There was no time to relax.
Spring and summer are her busiest months, from the horse racing
season through Easter and Mother’s Day to high teas. Now,
string quartets are tuning up for the garden party season in Metro
Detroit, and local celebrities are looking for captivating chapeaux
that set them apart from the crowd.
Conti was also the go-to milliner for the Hats Off Luncheon,
held in May at the toney Townsend Hotel in Birmingham to raise
money for the Suite Dreams Project, which redecorates the bedrooms
of children who confined to their rooms as they recover form cancer
and other life-threatening diseases.
These and other occasions call for the right hat.
“I don’t know a woman who doesn’t like to try
wearing a hat,” Conti says. “There’s a little
girl in everybody who wants to play dress-up with a hat.”
Her hats aren’t off-the-shelf, ready-to-wear chapeaux,
and Gena Conti Millinery isn’t a retail store, but a designer’s
salon. She sees clients by appointment only.
“There’s not a hot-glue gun in the house,”
Conti says proudly, affirming the not-so-subtle difference that
separates millinery from crafting.
The custom-designed hats can be months in the making, depending
on how elaborate the designs are and the textiles used –
anywhere from 10 or 20 hours, or a full week, Conti says.
“It’s done in stages, and the waiting time in between
can be an hour or two,” Conti explains. “I do my own
blocking and molding – I don’t do flat-pattern hats
– and that involves a lot of sculpting by hand. It can take
an hour or two to dry. Then there’s the lacquering and wiring,
and whether I’m making the trim.”
13 Hats in Prestigious Kentucky Derby Hat Exhibit
An example of the elaborate construction process is found in
The Tiffany Rose, which a panel of judges recently selected for
the prestigious 2015-2016 Kentucky Derby Hat Exhibit. This is
the 13th consecutive year her hats have been chosen for the exhibit.
The Tiffany Rose is fashioned from four layers of crisp, white
sinamay straw with an overlay of open weave, geometric fabric
in a classic tiffany blue color. The race season hat is adorned
with black sinamay band and matching, hand-fashioned sinamay ribbon
loops. Finishing touches include large, red silk roses and feather
rose buds, with a coordinating black cut-out butterfly.
As with a dozen previous Conti-designed hats before it, The Tiffany
Rose will be on loan to the museum for a year, then offered for
sale to a white list of clients who have admired and expressed
interest in buying it.
“Redee or Dot,” the 2014-2015 Derby Hat Exhibit selection,
just recently returned to Conti’s salon.
A large black sinamay disk covered with red velvet dotted tulle,
it is gracefully balanced with large black silk dahlia flowers
and adorned with vintage red synthetic horse-hair fringe, combinations
of red and black dotted tulle, red silk leave and sculpted black
and red sinamay looped bows.
It will sell for $645.
That’s about typical cost for the exclusivity of a custom-designed
“I don’t have $50 or $100 hats,” she says.
There’s nothing wrong with wearing an off-the-shelf hat
in that price range, Conti says. It’s just not what she
Race Season is “All about the Hat”
Conti’s clients hail from around the country. Those in
Metro Detroit come to the salon at 2732 Biddle Ave. for head measurements
and design consultations, but other appointments are held via
Skype. In some cases, Conti travels to meet the client.
She and her clients talk not just about the hat, but everything
they plan to wear and how they plan to accessorize it, including
shoes, jewelry and bags. Sometimes clients bring in the outfit
and ask Conti to coordinate the hat around it.
Often though, the process is reversed, and clients will buy the
hat and figure out what to wear with it later.
“They’ll chose the hat first, and go from there.
You can make an old dress look new just by putting on a hat,”
she says. “The race season is a bucket list kind of thing.
Really, it’s all about the hat.”
Conti’s hats are elaborate and designed to help women express
their creativity and individuality, but just as there’s
no hot-glue gun in her salon, neither are there crazy ornamentations,
like plastic horses and crowns made to look like mint juleps.
“I’m not knocking those people,” Conti says.
“If that’s your taste, that’s your taste.”
It just isn’t hers or her clients’.
“They want something nice they can wear again,” she
Many of her clients are millionaires, but she works with all
Many of her clients are millionaires, but she works with all
“It doesn’t have to be the most expensive material,
and it doesn’t have to be a $75 silk rose – my cost,”
she says. “It just needs to make you feel like a million
bucks, and we can do some simple things that can give you that
“It’s like going to the hairdresser or to a psychiatry
session,” Conti says. “It’s really personal.”
Conti has been designing from her salon since 1992.
“I have not had a terrible or finicky customer in all that
time,” she says. “I’m really blessed to work
with very, very nice people.”
Her line also includes men’s hats, including fedoras for
some of Metro Detroit’s famous musicians. The number of
male clients is climbing, Conti says.