Tracey Tooker's hats have been worn by many notable women, from First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, to Martha Stewart, Barbara Walters and Aretha Franklin.
And her handmade creations have been seen for years atop heads parading up and down the streets of Southampton Village, where she began opening summer pop-up shops in 1987.
“I do all aspects of millinery,” or hatmaking, Tooker said on Monday at her latest pop-up location, on Hill Street just west of Windmill Lane. The small shop is filled to the brim with hat racks, and no two hats in the store are alike, displaying the range of Tooker's imagination.
“That’s what makes these hats different," she said. "They’re really art pieces.”
Tooker uses many kinds of straw, including milan and paglina, as well as horsehair, real and imitation fur, feathers, and handcrafted and hand-painted flowers. She also makes fascinators — the headpieces popularized at the British royal wedding in 2011.
She recently took an old pink feather boa, which she says was dyed in the 1930s in Paris, and turned it into a one-of-a-kind hat.
“A lot of things I have in here, you can’t get ever again,” she said.
Tooker estimated she currently has 500 hats in inventory in her SoHo loft, though that is just the tip of the iceberg. “I’ve made about 50,000 hats,” she said.
In addition to pop-ups in Southampton, Tooker has had shops in Manhattan and Palm Beach. She is a snowbird she said — after the summer she typically travels from the Hamptons to her Palm Beach shop.
But while she is in Southampton, she serves many women who want something new to adorn their heads for the summer or, specifically, for the Hampton Classic Horse Show, where she was a vendor for 22 years and extraordinary hats are practically a requirement for female spectators.
At another equestrian event, the 2001 Kentucky Derby, one of Tooker's hats was worn by the wife of the winning horse's owner.
Tooker was raised in Locust Valley, N.Y., and Aspen, Colo., and attended Pratt Institute, where she graduated top of her class with a degree in industrial design. She was recently invited to be a vendor at the Brooklyn school’s 125th anniversary celebration.
She became a product designer, and a chair she co-designed is on display at The Louvre in Paris. She worked for industrial designer Charles Pollack, and for J.C. Penney department stores after graduating. When J.C. Penney moved to Texas, she didn’t want to leave her SoHo home, so she then attended the Fashion Institute of Technology to study sportswear, and got a job heading the hat division for Liz Clairbourne.
Soon after, she went off on her own, Tooker said.
Her first retail experience in Southampton was just one weekend on Jobs Lane, but she returned the next summer for a season-long pop-up, she said.
But then starting in 2002, Tooker had a number of medical events that sidelined her, beginning with a hip replacement after a dog ran her over, she said. That was followed by a heart attack and triple bypass. “I never smoke or drink; I got sick making hats,” she joked.
For a couple recent seasons, she shared stores in Southampton, which she called one of the worst experiences a person can have. “It’s always better to have your own space, where you can chew bubblegum, listen to music you like, and just enjoy.”
2012 is Tooker's first time back in the village with a storefront all her own. She pointed out that much of the furniture in her store is donated by friends or picked up from thrift shops.
“Everybody’s sort of helped me out and wanted to see me succeed,” she said.
The hats range from $75 to $2,000, and Tooker says she frequently makes custom orders.
Her pop up will close at the end of September, but expect to see Tooker in Southampton Village again next summer. And her hats can be seen online at hatsbytraceytooker.com.
See other businesses that popped up in Southampton Village in summer 2012: