The Glad Hatter

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVEN WHEN A FIRST LADY SAYS SHE DOESN'T CARE TO BE KNOWN FOR HER FASHION know-how, the mere wearing of a hat can create a style frisson. And if she also admits that she's missing the hairstyling gene, then a hat can do a nice cover-up job too.

So Hillary Rodham Clinton was thrilled to receive the gift of a golden raffia hat, sashed in black, from a local boutique while cruising the shopping streets of Martha's Vineyard last August. She wore it to lunch with Jackie Onassis (on Onassis companion Maurice Tempelsman's yacht) and jaunting along in a golf cart while her husband played the local Mink Meadows Golf Club. Even more thrilled was the hat's designer, Australian Helen Kaminski, 50, a late starter in the millinery business, whose big-brimmed chapeaus, which fetch up to $220 in tony shops like Neiman-Marcus in the U.S. and Harrod's in London, got a hefty new credential. "When the First Lady of a country like America wears your hat," says Kaminski, "it's a great marketing event."

Kaminski, the wife of a Royal Australian Navy captain, started toying with raffia, a fiber derived from the raffia palm tree, just nine years ago. Before that, she hadn't braided anything more complicated than the hair of her daughters, Anna and Lisa, now 19 and 23, and the tails of her horses. With the help of her nimble-fingered husband, Michael, 57 and now the company bookkeeper, she produced her first 40 raffia sun hats. "He was my finest plaiter," says Helen.

Her idea, says Kaminski, was to make hats for "people who wore Levi's 501s but didn't have anything to wear on their heads. I knew there was a style gap between the hats women wear to the Melbourne Cup [Australia's famous horse race attended by high society] and the porkpie hats old ladies wear." She also hit a moment in beauty history when women, alert to the threat of skin cancer, are ready for sunbonnets and when a sloped-brim hat nicely accessorizes a gauzy grunge dress.

Kaminski nabbed her first celebrity client in Aussie actress Judy Davis, who wore one in the 1986 film Kangaroo and another in 1987's High Tide. Subsequently, her creations graced Australian Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm and American Andie MacDowell in Green Card. The hats, called simply Kaminskis in Australia, are now handmade in raffia-producing Madagascar. There, 400 workers turn out 40,000 hats a year, making Kaminski's a $650,000 business. And that was before Hillary's endorsement. "I guess," says Kaminski, "I was in the right place at the right time."

LOUISE LAGUE
MELISANDE CLARKE in Melbourne

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