Finding Classic Headgear to Be Old Hat, Two Young Milliners Let Art Go to Their Heads

updated 11/28/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1988 01:00AM

One is a dove, a Picasso dove. Another is a Cocteau silhouette. There is also an artist's palette inset with colorful beads that are more Day-Glo than Degas. The giant sequined hat is Dalied up with squiggly-snake clock hands and, for social butterflies who want to make an impression, there is an Impressionist butterfly.

These hats, created by Eliot Whittall and Richard Shon, are designed for the fashionable woman who is willing to make an exhibition of herself. Whittal, 29, has been making whimsical headgear since the summer of 1978. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and moving to New York, he began producing what they called "fun cocktail hats," with a fellow art student. Whittall had expected to go to Paris that fall to work for Pierre Cardin, but the fledgling hat business became a sudden success, so he decided to stay in New York. Shon, 27, who was born in Japan to Chinese parents, worked in the fashion business in Paris when he was a Stanford University exchange student. He joined Whittall as a partner in 1985. The two employ about 60 workers in their New York factory, as well as more than 200 in the Far East, and they turn out 6,000 hats a week. Of these, just 25 are art hats.

These hats are just now hitting what Whittall calls "higher echelon specialty stores," where he hopes they'll attract women who don't take fashion too seriously. "If you're not having fun in it," says Whittall, "we say, 'Don't wear it.' " The fun doesn't come cheap, though. Whittall and Shon's art hats retail for about $250, which means that a prospective buyer has to be prepared to let her art rule her head.

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