The beautifully curved M is the trademark of hatmaker Mühlbauer, established in 1903, and adorns the headgear of fashionable people around the globe. I decide I would like to find out how these hats are produced and look for a Mühlbauer shop on my black and white WIEN PRODUCTS map. One phone call later, I have an appointment with workshop manager Katharina Stecker and meet the milliners at Schwedenplatz just a few days later.
It is summer outside and cheerful chatter comes through the wide open windows of the oblong workshop.
“If no one is on holiday — like at the moment — there are 14 staff members in our workshop,” says Katharina Stecker, a young, energetic woman and leads me through the storage rooms in which the raw hat bodies and straw models are neatly stacked until we reach another room from which we can feel heat emanating.
Phew! That must be quite a challenge in the summer. This is the place where a large number of different wooden molds are used to make the special hat models together with a good portion of steam and manual skill. Just now, a raw, blue hat body disappears inside a round steam bell that has a rather vintage look. Meanwhile, I take a look around, as the steam bell does its work. A gas-fired drying chamber with many compartments stretches along one entire wall starting beads of sweat to form on my forehead. The staff member, who has been working here for many years, does not seem to be bothered by the heat anymore, he has gotten used to it and takes a long sip of water from a bottle every so often. I am told how the material works and which models have already become classics and turn up in collections on a regular basis in adapted forms. Now, it is the blue hat’s turn – it has reached the perfect shape. The hat body is pulled over the lime tree mold with a few skilled moves and fixed with nails. Finally, cords are fixed to specific places where precise edges will go later and the shaped basic body goes into the drying chamber at about 70 °C.
Luc – an already dry and cooled down model — is taken off its mold and treated with a special iron and damp cloths. It is not so easy to take the hat model off the wooden mold. Each of the hats and caps that are made predominantly of felt from natural hair has its own, special needs – and each is one of a kind.
From here, the models go to the workshop, where the decorations are attached.
“How do you keep track of what is being produced?” is my question. Katharina Stecker explains to me that each piece carries a production sticker which lists the model, material, size and color and adds with a laugh: “This is the mechanical part of our otherwise analogue production.” We produce mainly on commission and not for stock – the collections are presented together with WIEN PRODUCTS at fairs in Paris and this year also in Shanghai and we make the orders submitted by our business partners. About 8,000 hats leave the workshop in the 1st District every year – 60 % go to retailers around the world. Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep are only two of the many celebrities who cherish the cool hats from Vienna.
Skilled hands work to finish the hats. This is where hatbands are being sewed on, the “front-middle” mark is made by hand and the decoration that makes each hat unique is attached. Differently-sized bands in hundreds of colors and materials, feathers and more are neatly laid out in rows in carton boxes. Every staff member makes one complete model – depending on the specifications, the hat is finished and receives the manufacturer’s trademark – the M – in addition to its decorations. Finally, each hat gets its own personal stamp – namely that of its maker, whose name adorns a round shield, labelling the hat as a product of this workshop.
If you look up the terms “milliner/hatmaker” on the websites of Vienna’s vocational schools, the future does not look too rosy. However, at Mühlbauer’s the craft is very much alive. “Oh dear, I was the only one in my year,” says Katharina Steckler and adds: “In the past, almost every theater had a milliner, now our shop also produces the stage hats for the Burgtheater among others.
We also employ career changers – everything has to come together, if someone is skilled and the chemistry is right, we’re happy to have them.”
Well, the shop gives the impression that everything works fine here: Mühlbauer – a milliner in its fourth generation and which has been present on the market since 1903 – is always at the cutting edge with its designs.
Last year, the “reform hat” attracted international attention, for instance, and the new collection that will be shown in Paris in September is already underway. I have the privilege to take a look at it and I am enthralled.
What is it like if someone has a very specific idea about his or her hat? “No problem, we make most hat dreams come true – we have just recently delivered a model for a wedding – the color matching the dress and some of the dress fabric was used for the decoration.”
I presume the customer is happy and she will be admired for her headgear.
Speaking of customers – what is the typical Mühlbauer customer like, I would like to find out. That would be a very difficult question to answer is the response – in any case, they are people who like the craft and the designs, who are interested in fashion and think its cool to wear a hat. The two shops in Vienna also have different types of customers – while more classic models are in demand at the shop on Seilergasse in the 1st District, the shop on Neubaugasse sells increasingly more modern designs.
Impressed by all what I have seen and heard, I leave the workshop and I am convinced that the excellent quality of the hats from Mühlbauer milliners is definitely worth a walk to their shops in Vienna.