Glad Hatter

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BERETS? BAH. THE PILLBOX? OLD HAT. As always, at the Royal Ascot racecourse in England in mid-June, the world-class horses were upstaged by the big-is-betler milliner. Winning a major place in the show was Irish hatmaker Philip Treacy, 27, who this year provided mostly neutral-toned toppers that were "very fashion-forward without a screaming effect," said one customer. Practical too. Explained Londoner Lucy Nelson: "I can actually kiss people and not cause anybody any grievous bodily harm."

That's important if you're Fergie, who owns a Treacy. So do Aretha Franklin, Boy George (his is a red devil hat with horns), Tracey Ullman and Diana Ross. Treacy's whimsical creations (which cost from $100 to $1,000) have even evinced poetry of sorts from fan Diana Rigg. "Such soaring crowns, the wit, the audacity, the sigh of feathers, the glow of velvet," the actress has enthused in Telegraph magazine.

Born to a baker and a housewife in County Galway, Ireland, Treacy, who is single, studied in Dublin at the National College of Art and Design and in London at the prestigious Royal College of Art. He began by fashioning offbeat headgear from flea-market materials. "What I enjoy about hats," he says, "is that you are making something from nothing, and you feel very satisfied with how you've spent your day."

Treacy found instant success after graduating from the Royal College in 1990, polishing off runway looks for Chanel, Valentino, Versace and Rifat Ozbek. "He's a sculptor of hats," says Ozbek, for whose collection Treacy once made a hat shaped like an Indonesian temple. "For me he finishes off my outfits. He's very good at putting the icing on the cake." Named British Fashion Awards Accessory Designer of the Year for three years running, Treacy staged his own runway show—a first for a milliner—during London's fashion week last year. As proof of Treacy's cachet, supermodel Naomi Campbell (who went topless) and Christy Turlington did the show at a discount rate. "I love the combination of an extremely elegant but simple shape with a to-die-for face underneath," he says.

Not that any of this has gone to his shy-guy head. "It's very nice to work on the nice side of life, to make things which make people feel happy," says Treacy. "Lifting spirits is the whole point of the exercise."

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