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Tip of the Hat

Meet the Atlanta-born milliner whose head-turning creations are topping off chic-set style around the world.

Koch’s “Red Sun” hat made of wool felt and goose feathers at Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week 2013 in Beijing

When Elisabeth Koch told her family that she was leaving a lucrative career in finance to become a milliner, she didn’t get the typical negative response. Instead, Koch’s parents—her mom’s an artist and her dad a retired steel executive with a woodworking area in his basement—were thrilled. After all, she says, “I had the opposite upbringing. It was always, ‘Poor you, you work in a bank,’ and finally I had joined the better, creative side.”

Born in Atlanta, Koch moved with her Dutch/Welsh parents around the world, eventually landing in London to attend university. It didn’t take long for her to join the British ranks or receive an invitation requiring she wear a hat. “My first inclination is always to make something, and if I can’t do it myself, then I’ll buy it,” says Koch, who found a bunch of feathers and cardboard and put together an incredible headpiece with nail polish and a stapler.

She would go on to marry a Dutchman whose foreign-service post led the couple to Beijing. There she decided to follow her dream, attending the renowned Wombourne School of Millinery and setting up her own shop. Chinese women, however, were not known for wearing exotic hats. “The higher class is known for their white skin, so they only wear them to keep the sun off,” explains Koch. But finding her were expats and magazine editors, with famous photographers like Mario Testino shooting covers, such as the 100th issue of Vogue China, featuring her brilliant designs. Royal heads such as The Netherlands’ Queen Maxima, as well as notables including Stella McCartney and Georgina Chapman of Marchesa, have also donned Koch’s toppers. Plus, they’re continuously spotted at Ascot—and you might have noticed a few chapeaus at her sister’s recent Atlanta wedding featured in The New York Times, which she hand-delivered. “You can usually find me traveling with the double stroller and lots of hat boxes,” the mother of two adds. “And yes, they fit in the overhead.”

Despite her global allure, Koch’s Atlanta roots continue to inspire her. “I had a Chinese client come to my studio once with a DVD of Gone with the Wind. She fast forwarded to the part she wanted to show me, pointed to Scarlett O’Hara’s burgundy raw-silk bonnet, and said, ‘Make me that!’” And now, the tastemaker’s American fans can finally acquire a piece of her divine style via—definitely good news for Southern belles traveling to this year’s Kentucky Derby.

But choose wisely, advises Koch, as the hat is “that extra challenge. It’s the cherry on top of the icing of the cake.”