There is more going on in Leigh Magar's Cannon Street studio than hatmaking these days. For almost 20 years, the FIT-trained milliner has created dramatic headwear that's been worn by the likes of Michael Stipe, Elvis Costello, and Christina Aguilera. Now, with her new label Madame Magar, she's designing dresses too.
Madame Magar is a way for the designer to get back to her roots, to mesh art and fashion together by creating handmade dresses in small batches in her studio. A devotee of Read Brothers — the quirky Upper King Street shop that sells fabric, handmade imports, and audio equipment — Magar has been collecting textiles for about as long as she's designed hats, just like she collects vintage scissors and antique sewing machines. A cotton cloth will catch her eye, and she'll take it home, dye it, and hang it out to dry on the clothesline on the porch.
Basically, as she explains, Madame Magar is a "fashion house stemmed in homespun," inspired by classic crafts and artisan approaches, but translated in a modern, yet whimsical way. "Modern and old has always been my inspiration," she says.
Even before Magar started her millinery business, she always had an interest in fashion design, but the idea for the label came to her a little more than a year ago during a meditation session. "I had a heart-opening experience," she explains. "My heart opened and a sea of lotus blossoms came out of my heart, so that was the beginning of the Madame Magar vision."
This new business also gives Magar the opportunity to scale back on the hats, which can be fairly labor intensive. "I'm trying to do other things that are easier for me, so I can have a day off," she laughs. "Hats were my first love and I'll always do them, I'm just going to branch out — it's an addition to Magar Hatworks, it's not in place of it. I want to create a whole aura of what I love, the objects and fashion and art that I've always collected and loved."
Magar's grandmother and great aunts were a major inspiration for the first collection. Hailing from Spartanburg, the designer remembers her grandma cooking, canning, and gardening. She has developed the Madame Magar patterns based off of vintage styles, particularly that of the housedress. The simple and comfortable frock has a reputation for being worn by women conducting domestic chores, but as Magar says, she wants to bring the housedress out of the house. Her own versions are adorned with details like ribbon or pom poms, embellishments that are certainly worth showing off to the outside world.
The current line of dresses features darker, winter-appropriate colors: deep navies, rich burgundies, with maybe a hint of gold here or there. Magar will produce a new collection for every season. For spring and summer, expect bright colors inspired by a recent trip to Corsica. The French Mediterranean island's untouched and dilapidated beauty will be a huge influence, and there might be some African and Caribbean pops too.
The collection also includes scarves, headbands, and a few bags. Magar is finding a way to utilize every bit of the fabric, whether for pin cushions packed with rice or the "rags to riches" dolls, sewn and stuffed with the scraps from the dresses. They're meant to be good luck charms. "If you buy one you'll get rich, and I will get rich too," she jokes.
And Magar is taking the "fashion house" idea to the next level. Now, her workspace will be a place where people can actually come see her work, in addition to purchasing her products. There will also be a repurposed playhouse in the back where local artists can display installations.
Eventually, Magar would like to hire seamstresses so she can focus on designing exclusively.
Like she says, it would be nice to have a day off.
Visit magarhatworks.com to see some of the pieces from the Madame Magar collection. Madame Magar's studio at 57 Cannon St. is open Thurs.-Sat. from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., or by appointment. Call (843) 345-4483.