Jean Barthet's Offbeat Bonnets Are Turning Heads This Spring from Paris to the Pacific

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

The cat in the hat is back. Berets, fedoras, skimmers, panamas, you name it—they are selling almost twice as briskly as they were a year ago. These tidings, of course, gladden the mad milliner of Paris, Jean Barthet.

Barthet, who credits the Princess of Wales, in part, for the hat's resurgence, shapes chapeaus for such star designers as Montana, Ungaro, Rykiel and Lagerfeld, and since the mid-1950s he's been topping off the world's most glamorous women with creations that range from baby doll to vamp to space-age fantastic. Natalie Wood and Rita Hayworth wore Barthet bonnets. So did Maria Callas and Princess Grace, who ordered their trademark turbans chez Jean. And when Farah Diba was the Empress of Iran, she summoned Barthet to her palace to whip up elaborate veiled headdresses for the ceremony celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire. "My profession is a passport," says Barthet.

It has taken Barthet far afield from Nay, the village at the base of the Pyrenees where he grew up. Even as a boy, Barthet had a strange and passionate affinity for hats. At the strict Catholic school Jean attended, priests regularly caught him drawing women, stark naked except for hats on their heads. At 21, Barthet headed for Paris, where he landed a job at the tony milliner Orcel. "My desire to make hats was stronger than anything else," he remembers. Two years later he struck out on his own.

These days bachelor Barthet, who says he's 52, divides his time between his apartment in the exclusive 16th arrondissement and his petit atelier behind the Madeleine Church. Space there is cramped; eight women work together in a 9'-by-9' area, yet Jean scampers happily about his small nest. Hand Barthet a washcloth or piece of paper, and he unconsciously molds it into a hat, reaching instinctively for the nearest head to try out a new design. "I like touching things, giving them shape and volume," he explains. "I'm nervous. I can't sit still. I need to explode."

One of Barthet's most fruitful working relationships has been with Claude Montana. Two years ago they collaborated on the designer's fall-winter line. For weeks after they first talked, Montana heard nothing. Frantic, he stormed Barthet's atelier at 2 a.m. two days before his show to find the milliner fitting enameled wooden forms on his exhausted model, an elderly seamstress. "Sometimes I want to scream," says Montana. "He is always so late. But his hats are incredible. He's the rainbow after the rain."

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