Hats off to a long-overdue success story

It’s not every day that a person is summoned to the Prime Minister’s house (also known as the Official Residence, or 24 Sussex). But that’s exactly what happened to Kelly Dunlap, a hat-maker and former Vancouverite, a few weeks ago. “I was in bed watching a TV show when I noticed I had a private message on Instagram,” recounts Dunlap, who is professionally known as the Saucy Milliner. “I was surprised to see it was from Jessica Mulroney, the daughter-in-law of Brian Mulroney and husband to Ben. I knew she was a stylist, so I wrote her back with my phone number. My phone rang, like, 30 seconds later.”

Mulroney told Dunlap that the nature of her request was strictly confidential. Dunlap assumed it must be what she calls a “hat 911.” She gets them all the time, but never before from the highest political office in Canada. “Jessica said they needed a hat for Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to meet the Royals in Victoria, but they had been waiting on confirmation on Princess Kate’s wardrobe,” says Dunlap. “That only came through from Buckingham Palace two days before the Royal Welcome in Victoria – so there was some urgency, yes.” Dunlap hopped out of bed and sent Mulroney pictures of five or six hats. Mulroney replied that they would let her know in the morning. Dunlap didn’t sleep that night.

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Van Shakedown 1006 Royal Hats Saucy Milliner
Source: (left) Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wearing "the Ingrid" hat - Getty Images photo

Dunlap started her hat-making craft under the name the Saucy Milliner while living in a tiny apartment in Kitsilano. She eventually spent 11 years here trying to throw her hats into the ring of Vancouver retail. She never found the perfect fit, despite the fact that her hats are very high quality and Dunlap herself brims with confidence and character. (She refers to herself as a “millinerd.”) Eventually, she returned to her native Ottawa, but when that didn’t work either, she set up shop in Toronto’s Distillery District. She kept at it, often against the advice of friends and family. Then Jessica Mulroney found her.

The next morning, Mulroney called again. It was “go time.” Sophie Grégoire would indeed wear one of Dunlap’s hats at the Royal Welcome. The event was to take place in just over 24 hours, which meant Dunlap had to personally deliver the hats to the Official Residence in Ottawa as quickly as possible. Having struggled for years and suddenly being given the opportunity to land a hat on the Prime Minister’s wife, Dunlap was in a state of shock as she searched for a rental car. Her panic escalated when she discovered all of the rental companies were booked out. At a company she frequently rents from, she leaned across the counter and said under her breath to a familiar attendant, “This is a top-secret matter of national importance. It involves the Prime Minister.” The attendant looked up, realized she was serious, and replied, “Okay, we can help you.” 

“I drove the five hours from Toronto to Ottawa like Jason Bourne,” Dunlap recalls. When she finally arrived inside the gates of 24 Sussex (which she was able to enter just by saying, “I’m the hat-maker”), an aide took the hats. Dunlap was then thanked and escorted out. One day later, on the tarmac in Victoria, the Prime Minister and his wife greeted the Royals. Sure enough, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau was wearing a stylish, purple chapeau. Dubbed “the Ingrid,” the plush, Bordeaux fur felt creation was named after Ingrid Bergman and its 1940s style – the iconic actress’s heyday. (Dunlap found the very rare mold for the hat at Stepback, a secondhand store on West Broadway.)

The Ingrid, along with everything else Princess Kate and Sophie Grégoire were wearing, received favourable reviews worldwide, especially in the U.K. (The Guardian remarked upon the “trilby-style hat worn at a jaunty angle.”) The Saucy Milliner brand was name-checked everywhere from the Daily Telegraph to the Huffington Post. The first customer who walked into Dunlap’s Toronto shop on the following Monday asked, “Are you the lady that made that hat for Sophie?”. The Royal Moment made all those years of struggle in Dunlap’s tiny Kitsilano apartment feel worth it. “I was incredibly pleased that Sophie wore my hat. It felt so validating,” she says. “Suddenly, after 10 years, my friends and family ‘get it.’ I just wish my grandpa and my dad were alive to see it.”

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