When Lady Gaga appeared on the cover of her 2016 album, Joanne, unadorned except for a gently tapered pink felt hat, the Mexican American designer Gladys Tamez officially stepped center stage. She launched her line, Gladys Tamez Millinery, in Los Angeles in 2014 and would become one of the first Latina hat designers in the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Clients like Beyoncé, Kendall Jenner, and LeBron James (who bought the felt Optimo cap in every color) also sport her chic creations. We chatted with Tamez at her Arts District showroom and atelier, where antique hat blocks are displayed alongside contemporary art, to discuss her roots, her inspirations, and what true luxury means.
You’ve described yourself as Tex-Mex. How has your heritage influenced your work?
I’m Mexican, but I was born in Texas. I grew up in Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas, on the border, and when you live on the border, you go back and forth all day. We used to go to a ranch on the weekends, and the rancheros wear cowboy hats, and of course they do in Texas, too. Hats were always around me.
Yet millinery is a specialized field. How do you go from wearing hats to making them?
I’m from the Taurina family of bullfighters. My husband, Oliver, and I were doing a road trip in Spain, and we passed through this little town called Vitoria. There was a hatmaker who had been there for four generations, making hats for policemen, clero—the priests. I was having a bolero hat made, and right then and there I saw it, the spark: I love this. I want to do this! I had a clothing line, and I closed it, and I started looking for a teacher. Millinery is called a secret art—I guess there are schools in Paris, but it’s hard to find them—and organically I found this amazing lady, Lois King, and I took a class with her. She’s retired now.
Your signature is the unique shapes of the crowns of your hats, which look traditional but are quite sculptural.
I studied art in Florence, and then I came to L.A., and I was really passionate about the architecture here—[John] Lautner is one of my favorites—and I started expressing that in the construction of the hats. Some designers use a lot of decoration, but my hats are more minimal.
Were you always creative?
I was always interested in fashion. My parents had a bookstore called Tivoli, and at 10, I was reading Vogue.
Where does your design process start?
My inspiration comes from everywhere: a photo, a trip, a book. Lately I’ve been playing golf, and we launched a golf capsule collection for summer ’22. My spring/summer ’23 collection is inspired by the Mexican movie star Dolores del Río, who lived for many years in Hollywood. She wore a lot of red, and classic fedoras.
Speaking of inspirations, the hat you made for Lady Gaga was instantly iconic.
Gaga and I collaborated on the pink hat for the Joanne album cover, which was a tribute to her aunt. And that turned into the tour, and all her presentations, and New York Fashion Week. I think we made two hundred and something hats for her, but I lost count.
You’ve said that Gladys Tamez Millinery is a true luxury, heritage product, as opposed to a luxury brand. What is the distinction?
We make everything by hand in Los Angeles, and that, to me, defines luxurious more than the way something is marketed. I could produce the hats in Italy, but it’s important to me to keep production in-house. I do freestyle shaping, and we create everything with the finest materials: straw from Ecuador, grosgrain ribbon from France and Japan. A good hat can be passed to the next generation.
How should someone feel when they wear a Gladys Tamez design?
I want to give confidence to people. People tell me, “I can’t wear hats, I don’t look good in hats.” I say, “Come to see me. Let’s try.” I always say, the hat doesn’t wear you; you wear the hat.
What can we look for this fall?
Our fall/winter collection, Tivoli, is an homage to my mother, Elizabeth, who recently passed. She was my personal style icon and my muse. Her support and encouragement and her grace and poise have most informed who I am and how I design.•