The Mad Hatter

by Inna Race

Milica Schiavio is one big socialite, a busy professional, a loving mother and a interesting artist with what I like to call a crazy imagination. She loves to party, always with a bunch of her whimsical hats in tow; you will always see her wearing one, and before long, so is practically every guest. Milica knows how to make everyone fall in love with those mad hats of hers…
I had a lot of fun when she ask me to do a photo-shoot for one of her collections. Please enjoy the interview and a few examples of work from my “Crazy Creative Friend”, Milica in the Hat Millinery.

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Please tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic journey.
I’ve always been around art, since childhood. My mom is a corporate art consultant for over 20 years, she’s a collector and dragged to me to so many art shows in life that its beyond count. I used to be bored. Imagine a 12 year old in a gallery, museum or art show, or witnessing wild drinking Russian artists at home talking until 3am, but now I love it!! And the samovars we have, my grandma always used to say “Oh no! Another one?! Where will you put this one?” But each is unique and special. Now I know and appreciate and wish there was more of everything. Of all the art shows I’ve been taken to, the Bienale di Venezia where we’ve been going since I was about 14 is my absolute favorite. It’s the best, the most fun, and the art makes you think. It impacts you. I could write a short book just on the experience of the Bienale over the years, the artists and friendships. In 2015 my daughter has this to look forward to.

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Why hats? How did you get started?
I grew up around women who wore hats, and those women were extremely fascinating and captivating, particularly the late Countess Zorana de Kide, my mom’s very close friend who was always Teta Zorana to me. She was always bedecked in jewels, gardening around her swimming pool with a 10-karatknuckle buckle on each finger, in some couture gown, with a hat of course. It was a sight to see, especially as a 4-5-6-7-8 year old. Her house was full of not only Picasso ceramics and art, but also many nude portraits of her by one of her seven husbands, from her younger days. She always had Gianduiotti chocolates for me in the nicest most elegant china and silver dishes I had ever seen. She spoke with a funny accent, she had an elevator in her house, which I always wanted to go in, and she would shoot squirrels in her yard with a double barrel shot gun. She was a character! She gave me my first fur coat when I was 11 years old. Later, when I was about 17 I drove her to the Philadelphia airport to pick up a travel ticket. When we arrived the agent told her that she needed to select one last name because all of them could not fit on the ticket, and in her accent she replied “Oh no! I will not choose!” Somehow, they made it work. In addition, she drove like a mad woman. She drove me around Rome, and Philadelphia and she was better than Schumacher. She always wore the finest leather gloves for driving. And, she would always curse at other drivers, which is how I learned my first Italian words “Stupido, cretino imbecille!” I loved her dearly. She passed when I was 26.

The late Barbara Greenfield was another friend of my mom’s, another very intriguing woman who was never without a hat. She had a dreamlike farmhouse where she would host Boxing Day each year and all her 50 relatives (or more) would be there. She would send these long letters around Christmas time recounting her year and all her family members’ successes. I loved it! In addition, she never stopped telling stories! Of how she met her husband, the war, how she came to the US, how she was a member of the UN, and so much more. She was incredible! Nobody had greater energy, passion, and work ethic than Barbara. She passed this year.

Thus, hats were around me since childhood. I associated them with women who were fascinating, successful, one of a kind, of another time.

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Where do you find your inspiration?
I am inspired by the different cultures I have encountered. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled the world, to places like Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, Argentina, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, just to name a few, Italy a million times and all of Europe beyond what I can count. What I have taken from all this, from a fashion perspective, is color and texture. When I create hats I imagine the black and red checked cloth of the Masai, their colorful beaded jewelry, I see the bright handmade materials of the people at the marketplace at Chicicastenango, Guatemala, and the silks of Italy. In my day-to-day life I encounter mostly ill-fitting suits in grey, black or navy which is not only visually displeasing, but also which bore me. There is no spark and no individuality to the clothing I see around me and there is no femininity to a woman. “Middle class” American style is what I would describe as perfectly square with no tailoring. Therefore, my hats are the polar opposite of that. They are colorful, joyful, and I often incorporate fruits or found objects in my hats to make them fun. My hats are intended to infuse each wearer with light and joy. They are supposed to be conversation pieces, which attract people and make them curious about what you are wearing and who you are to be wearing such a thing. Where did you get the guts and where did you get that hat? I can’t believe it’s not TjMaxx!

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What designers influenced you?
I am not sure that a particular designer influences me. I do not follow fashion trends, read magazines, or look at what celebrities are wearing. I do not watch TV. I was most influenced by my ceramics teacher at The Baldwin School, Mrs. Vicky Gold. When I was a teenager she encouraged me to make whatever I wanted, whatever came from within. I was a rebel at the time, ha-ha, or just a teen. I played piano at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory of Music for over 10 years and hated it. In Mrs. Gold’s ceramics class I discovered that there are no rules with art, or that the piece must stand, just as a hat must balance, but beyond that, the sky is limit in terms of imagination. I used to jab nails into my off-centered ceramic pieces and while they were in the kiln the nails would melt, often times onto the kiln shelf. It was a mess, but Mrs. Gold let me go on with my wild creations. My dream was to be a ceramicist but it was not encouraged at home, as an artist does not earn a living. Anyway, Mrs. Gold encouraged artistic freedom and that is really, what led me to the path I am on now which takes form in the shape of hat. For me art is total freedom, it does not have to conform to anything. That is what ceramics was for me then and that is what hats are to me now.

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You have an adorable little daughter, how do you find time to create, manage all of your personal and professional life?
I wake up at 6:45am daily and stay up late. I keep a paper Filofax calendar in my purse, which is how I track where I am supposed to be day by day. I do not rely on technology. I think time management is about choices, where you want to be, and whom you want to surround yourself with. Moreover, it’s about being well organized in advance so that when the event comes, or the need for a hat arises, you can do it. A stable and nurturing home life also helps and none of what I do would be possible without the love and support of my husband, and my mom. As for my daughter Ljubica, she’s a super happy, exuberant, people loving girly girl full of smiles. I’ve delved into kids hats thanks to her and love seeing her reaction when I put a hat on. We have tons of fun and she makes me laugh! She’s a riot and for me there is nothing better than being a mom.

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Do you think that your professional life as an artist would be different if you were still in Serbia?
Yes, it would be different. There are pros and cons to each country. 

How has American culture influenced you?
American culture has hardened me and made me capable of endurance. It has made me think critically and question the unsaid. I consider this period of my life as strength training. I am a warrior woman wearing a wild happy hat.

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What has been your biggest struggle as an artist?
My biggest struggle as an artist is admitting to people that love my hats that I work at a bank full time. The look on their faces is priceless! As a result, I cannot accept daytime commitments, and I often cannot make it to events in the early evening. I have learned to set limits, to be selective, and to accept only a few jobs, not all. That has been difficult for me as I am a workaholic that needs to be occupied. I must also often reject fantastic international invitations. With 2 weeks of vacation per year, my time is limited by my corporate reality. I also find it difficult to sell hats online with my website as the only vehicle. I think that sales would increase if I were on EBay and Etsy, for example. I currently have a social media intern who does wonderful work, but I could easily have five more interns and full time for that matter.

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What advice would you give to a new artist?
The advice I would give to a new artist is “Just do it” and make sure you project a desirable image. The key to success is being wanted and often quality of the product has nothing to do with it. I think that what sells and what is of quality may be two different things. Likewise, how you are perceived, and what the reality is, may, or may not be the same. So if you are not tech savvy or if you are not a social media guru, hire a PR or brand manager. Package yourself so that people will want to be around you. Then, they will buy your product. I worked for Helen Drutt: Philadelphia, one of the most renowned art dealers in the US, for over 4 years. What I took away from that is that an artist is only as good as his agent and that each piece and every artist must come with a story. It is the artist’s story, which sells the piece; otherwise, the artwork is just an object lost in a sea of other art objects.

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What exciting future projects are you working on?
I am looking forward to creating a new white collection for Diner en Blanc Philadelphia in August. Last year I had 10 days notice for 15 hats. I didn’t sleep a wink and my eyes were flickering at work. This year my hats and fascinators will take on a new direction. My participation is thanks to Pierre Rives, one of the organizers who got me involved.

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What impact do you hope to make in the future?
I hope to teach more and inspire people to create imaginative hats. So far, I have taught hats at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as part of PAFA in Bloom, and various hat courses at Main Line School Night. I hope to inspire creativity. I also hope that my daughter might care about my hats one day, look back at all of them and all the photos, press, and say proudly “that’s my mama.” I think life is not only about what you teach, but also what you leave behind in the form of objects that family will remember you by, be they paintings collected over a lifetime, hats created, or samovars, a house which carries memories, or anything unique which people will remember you for.

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