History With Hats Has Driven Her Success

By Kathleen Luppi Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif.

On the coast-hugging roadway that connects tourists to the artists' enclave is a tiny shop in Laguna Beach that caters to clients from all over the world.

There, master hat maker Paula Del Percio has perfected her craft of 23 years, creating elegant hats for everyone from local socialites to Robert De Niro.

Today, Del Percio can still be found working in the shop, The Hat Box, from morning to night most days. Most of the creations come from her busy working table in a small space within her shop on South Coast Highway, where hats in all shapes and sizes seem to be perched everywhere, even lining the walls like jewels.

Her love for creating headpieces developed when she was a child. In the '40s, her parents opened a hat factory in Manhattan, N.Y. Her father shaped the hats using wooden blocks and steam, and her mother hand-sewed the ribbons and beadwork.

She'd go to work with her parents and watch the tools of the millinery trade.

"I had a hat for every occasion," she said. "This is a connection to my parents, and without them, I wouldn't have had that intimacy with the craft."

At the time, Del Percio didn't think she would one day create hats with her own hands.

She always had a love for art, she said, but her parents wanted her to get an education. So she obtained a master's degree in mathematics and taught high school math for more than 13 years.

In 1983, newly divorced and living in California, her children grown, Del Percio set teaching aside and grew more interested in the designing and making of hair accessories.

She raided her parents' basement in New York, finding silk ribbons and thread that she still has on her work station today. She started an accessories business, making hair clips, headbands and wraps and sold the pieces at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

"They were becoming so elaborate that I thought they were equivalent to hats," Del Percio said. "So I thought, if I'm going to make a hat, it's going to be the best."

Six years later, she moved to New York and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. While she was studying pattern hat-making and blocking -- the shaping of felt and straw -- both her parents died.

"My parents thought I was nuts when I told them I wanted to get into the business," she said with a laugh. "They told me that I didn't need an education to do this. They felt that here I was, educated to be a professional but wanting to do something too physical. It's hard work, but I had the confidence."

She trusted her talent and in 1992, opened a boutique in East Hampton, making hats for celebrities including Susan Lucci, Dennis Rodman, Maya Angelou and Stephanie Powers.

After some time, Del Percio moved her business to Laguna Beach to be closer to her children. She opened the shop in 2002.

Most of the hats she sells are her own, though she also offers mass-produced hats, with a price range from $35 to over $700.

The finest custom-made hat can cost more than $1,000. The Hat Box uses straw from Switzerland and Italy and felt from the Czech Republic. ???WHY?????????????

Among the selection are hats made from raffia by natives from Madagascar, hand-woven Panama hats made in Ecuador and a variety of styles by Christys' London, a British hat maker since 1773.

Hats, Del Percio said, are making a reappearance at weddings, fundraisers and at the beach. She has designed pieces for women attending the Kentucky Derby, and her designs have won first place in the Most Glamorous category at the Opening Day Hat Contest at Del Mar.

"More people are embracing the art of dressing up," Del Percio said. "It's fun and different and now there are hat parties. That didn't happen 10 years ago. I've seen a huge difference in the last few years."

She said wearability and individuality are the priorities for every project, and she enjoys helping shoppers select just the right style.

"I took a wild chance but it was an outlet for my creativity," Del Percio said. "I like to make something and be proud of it." If You Go

What: The Hat Box When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily Where: 550 S. Coast Hwy., Suite 4, Laguna Beach Information: (949) 497-7335 or visit thehatbox.com

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