You might have seen her at Royal Ascot or the Kentucky Derby—just look for the feathers. New Jersey-based hat designer Ines Hernandez Tallaj wears some of the most attention-grabbing hats in the VIP section of the equestrian world, having been on the “best hats” list of The Guardian, Daily Mail, or E! Online.
Horse races are some of the best places today to see the world’s most extravagant hats. They’re like their own little fashion shows. Hernandez has found a home here. For over 20 years, she has been attending horse races with her husband, Dr. Ramon Tallaj, and now uses them to display her couture hat collection.
“My husband has always loved horses,” she said. “He has always liked going to the horse races across the world, from Saratoga to the Kentucky Derby and the Royal Ascot.”
With a passion for fashion, it wasn’t until 2013 that she decided to make a fashion statement with her hats. She told her friends: “Next year, I am going to wear a hat and people are going to take pictures of me,” recalls Hernandez.
She was right. She unveiled her first hat—a round, green-hued hat of a horse, which she hand-painted with oil paint, in 2014.
“I wanted to put a horse on my head, but I wanted it to look elegant—I thought, how can I do this in a way where it doesn’t look Halloween?” she asks.
“I painted a horse and put it on this elegant hat, and it was a huge hit. “Everyone asked if they could take a picture with me. Since then, I’ve been designing hats.”
Her next hat she designed was a black and white silhouette of a horse, made with feathers. From there, her fancy headwear took off. What has made Hernandez’s hat stand out from the others is that she matches each hat with the same fabric as her outfit.
“When I went to the races, I didn’t see hats matching the fabric of an outfit,” she said. “So, I decided to make my hats match my outfit, whether it was a silk pantsuit or a tulle dress.”
Over the past nine years, Hernandez has been wearing her own couture, handmade hats to the world’s most high-profile races. One hat she wore in 2015 to the Royal Ascot had blue and orange feathers, while another she wore had pink and green floral arrangement. Others in her collection include a large, oversized red hat (which looks like something out of a Tennessee Williams play) to another red-hued hat filled with oversized ostrich feathers.
Most of her hats are an ode to Old Hollywood, and films like My Fair Lady and Sabrina. “I love the old 1950s fashion more than today, and I love Audrey Hepburn,” said Hernandez.
Typically, she creates five hats a year. “I like mixing extravagance with elegance,” said Hernandez.
When it comes to her hat designs, it all starts with the fabric. She starts by going to the garment district in New York City and buying all her fabric, feathers, and flowers there. She uses lampshade wire rings to hold together the brim and uses a lot of floral themes for them.
“I make it all by hand,” said Hernandez. “It typically takes me a full week to make one hat. I really enjoy it; when I make hats, I forget about everything. It’s like therapy.”
Winged creatures are a recurring theme for Hernandez, who has designed three butterfly hats. “It takes a lot of courage to wear these hats, it’s bold,” she said. She recalls her husband’s first impression of the hat, saying: “‘You are not going to wear that.’”
“I said to him, ‘that’s what I brought, that’s what I’m going to wear,’” said Hernandez, who wore her butterfly hats to the Royal Ascot. And she has a designer to help her make a dress or pantsuit out of the same fabric, so her outfit is coordinated with the hat.
Now, Hernandez has launched her Instagram account, Ines Hats, which allows racegoers and fashion enthusiasts to order their own couture hats. And on September 30, she’ll be attending her next race in full hat regalia, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
In a fashion era where minimalism and casual style has taken over, Hernandez says more people should go all out. Wear hats.
“Why not?” she asks. “The sun is good but the older you get, it’s better to protect your skin by wearing big, extravagant hats,” she said. “You can make hats contemporary with a modern outfit.”
She adds: “People need to take risks and wear more hats. I am 62. At this age, I just want to have fun.”