Thursday, 26 July 2012

Thinking outside the hat box: Imogen's Imagination

Published on ForgeToday (the University of Sheffield's student newspaper) 20/07/12
Behind the post-industrial face of Sheffield lies a strong community of creative individuals. Within this vibrant community attention to detail is everything, and those with a determination to pursue their passion and share it with others have set up their own businesses.
‘Imogen’s Imagination’, a Sheffield-based millinery business set up by former University of Sheffield student Sophie Cooke, is one of these independent businesses. University brought Sophie to Sheffield from her hometown of Stafford, but the city’s vibrant creative scene is what has kept her here.
Red handblocked felt beret
‘I’m from quite a small town and what I liked about Sheffield is that it was big enough to be anonymous but – it is the biggest village in the world!’ says Sophie. ‘It’s a bit like ‘Cheers’, walking into a pub and everybody knows your name!
‘I like that side of it but I also really like how different the city is, and what an industrial city it used to be and what a creative city it is now. There is always something interesting to go and see or go and do.’

Although she works in Police intelligence analysis by day, Sophie is a creative girl at heart and hat making is her passion. She creates custom-made fascinators, hats and hair accessories for a wide variety of customers and events.

The hats, fascinators and hair accessories Sophie creates are inspired by vintage and burlesque fashion. The business has its roots in attending burlesque nights in Sheffield and her own search for something special to finish off the much laboured-over outfit, and although she professes a love for the pre-1960s period she strives to create pieces that are timeless.
‘I love the pre-sixties vintage stuff and I think it is really classy. The shows are just so entertaining and I love anything with a bit of glitter! But my work is more what I call “vintage and burlesque inspired.” It is more about trying to bring elements from that to create classic, timeless designs that you can wear with modern clothes and you can wear with vintage clothes – it is the idea of trying to be the antithesis of the high street.’
Her designs, which are petite and neat, show a noticeable effort to resist the high street’s love of all things feathered and over the top when it comes to hats and fascinators.
‘That is the aim, to allow people to have something different, something special but not obtrusive that will make them feel confident. I sometimes describe my styles as a bit “vanilla”, so they are not massively quirky or really outrageous; though I love that sort of thing, it is not my style. Hopefully that means I can appeal to a wider range of people.’
Limited collection fascinator
Sophie’s creations can be found on Facebook and Etsy ready to purchase but she frequently does custom orders for clients who have something more specific in mind. She receives requests for a huge variety of different occasions from weddings, christenings, race days, and even hen parties.
‘I want to offer something that isn’t more widely available. When people think of fascinators they think of feathers, which is quite “frothy” and the complete opposite of what I do.’
Her business also revolves around a desire to reignite a love for hats amongst the public, and stop them from always being saved for a special occasion. ‘I’ve always loved hats but never had the reason to wear them. I think that is an overriding thing with everybody – you don’t wear a hat unless you have to. If it is cold then you wear a woolly hat. For a wedding, you wear a hat or some hair accessories. And that’s it.’
While a great deal of her designs are for special occasions, Sophie feels that her smaller hair accessories and berets provide the opportunity and, due to their size, the confidence, to be worn any day of the year.
There is a sizeable network of vintage and crafts lovers in Sheffield who, like Sophie, have set up businesses that offer an alternative to the high street. Sophie travels all around the country displaying her wares at craft fairs and vintage wedding fairs, the main meeting places for like-minded vintage and handmade crafts lovers.
How Sophie manages her time is simply astounding. Part of me believes that while we sit downstairs having the interview, there is a Sophie Cooke upstairs working away on hats, and a Sophie Cooke at South Yorkshire Police Station, in possession of something akin to Hermione Granger’s ‘Time Turner’ in the Harry Potter series.
She frequently works 12-hour days, and amongst this she finds time to attend an evening millinery class at Leeds College of Art to expand on her skills. However, for Sophie, it is all worth it.
‘I probably class it slightly as an obsession. If I’m not at proper work then I’m working on the business. I work seven days a week, 12 hours a day – in between a sleep! Some people have partners, some people have children and I have the business.’
Due to the hours she spends on the business, it came as a surprise to me that Sophie doesn’t currently plan for ‘Imogen’s Imagination’ to take over as her main occupation, seeing it rather as a self-serving project than a job.
Ultimately, that is the most inspiring thing about Sophie. Leaving university uncertain about the future that lay ahead, she found that taking chances led to some very unexpected and exciting opportunities.
‘I do enjoy my job and that is why I only ever want to go part time. I really do love it as much as I whinge about it… It’s the Holy Grail, a job you enjoy. It may not be the most financially rewarding, and it may not be the highest profile, but if you love your job then nothing beats that at all.’
Although millinery bears no obvious connections to East Asian Studies, Sophie’s degree, what she values most from her experiences at university is the life lessons learnt. ‘If I hadn’t gone to university, if I hadn’t come to Sheffield and if I hadn’t had those good experiences and bad experiences then I wouldn’t be where I am now,’ she says, ‘And I’m very happy where I am now.
‘I would say take whatever is there, as you don’t know where it is going to lead. If you have a passion then do everything in your power to follow it.’
A degree and the knowledge contained within it are only a fraction of the university experience. At university a great deal of students are experiencing life away from home for the first time and are having to deal with the various perils of living independently. The future can seem uncertain for many students, yet if Sophie’s example is anything to go by, by achieving a job you love and filling your time with things you’re passionate about, then life will be fulfilling.
As for the inspiration behind the name? “I’ve never met a nasty Imogen!”

Sophie wearing one her own creations

By Alice Burrow
Photographs courtesy of Sophie Cooke

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