Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Bri Hammond
You may recognise Richard Nylon from the society pages at the back of The Age newspaper – his handlebar moustache, extravagant attire and headwear make Melbourne’s most popular milliner hard to miss.
But behind the boyish grin and daring costumes that dazzle even international fashion royalty such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Richard admits there is a part of him that is ‘work-a-day and shy’.
Revealing he came from a humble farming background, it was a creative impulse that led him to millinery. But such an impulse could have manifested in anything to do with creating reality – acting, costume design, he even wanted to be a chef for a moment or two.
His chosen profession of millinery is not for the faint-hearted. Dividing his time between long hours spent at his studio, teaching at RMIT and working two days a week at Myer, Richard pulls the curtain between the glamourous world of fashion and the everyday toil of a creative working with a bespoke artform.
From his daily commute by bicycle to his studio in Fitzroy, to meeting clients for fittings, Richard candidly shares how he has learned to appreciate his distracted mind, and teaches us the difference between being alone and being lonely.
The self-confessed ‘socially-functioning introvert’ proves that we can be simultaneously elaborate and yet crave simplicity, dazzling and yet shy – our way of being as intricate as a handmade headpiece.
PART I: DAILY ROUTINE
I’m not a morning person – definitely an evening person – so waking up depends on the season. If it is winter I will wake up at perhaps 8:00 a.m.
If it is spring or summer and I’m preparing for Spring Racing, it is as early as I can get out of bed.
Leaving the house
When I’m riding my bike to the studio I always wear headphones and listen to music. At the moment it’s early 80s rap, funnily enough.
I have breakfast here at the studio. It is very precise – if it is mango season, I will have half a Kensington Pride mango chopped up and put in a bowl with a small Granny Smith apple and five strawberries. That goes into the microwave for two minutes and then I will add it to a mixture of three types of Aldi oat-based muesli: one with maple syrup, one with cranberries, and one with almonds. Oh, and I also add almonds. Then I scoff it with a massive cup of tea. I have recently given up having milk in my tea after breakfast because I’m starting to develop a bit of a gut.
I generally look at emails or listen to a podcast. I listen to a lot of podcasts – an awful lot podcasts, really. Because you can't read and make headpieces, listening to podcasts is sort of like my reading. They are educational because I like to learn about ideas. So I listen to a lot of science and shows from National Public Radio, the BBC, not very much Australian stuff I have to say.
I will work on pieces and my assistant Kristine will ask me about emails. I do some administrative stuff because Kristine is only here two days a week, but generally she does the social media and admin-y things like answering emails.
Then I will take a look at which brides are in that day and think about what has to be ready. Next door Gwendolynne Burkin [bridal fashion designer and dear friend of over two decades] will do the appointments for brides and I work around her appointment schedule so I have to be here if somebody is getting a headpiece from me.
Sometimes I just fiddle around with new materials and experiment or play around with some new ideas. There is no real 'this until that hour'.
Because I’m a daydreamer, I could probably be more disciplined in my approach, in fact I have been this year. If I daydream a bit too much, I don’t do much work – it's more just thinking time and I probably devote too much time to thinking.
Getting on with it is more important than just dreaming about it.
I don’t have lunch as I find that it sends me to sleep. If you are working on a piece, you are sitting down a lot, so I don’t have any food in the afternoon. I might graze – I might have a biscuit or another piece of fruit or something and lots of tea. I just really enjoy tea – hot, cold doesn’t matter. Plain old Dilmah or Lipton, I’m not fussy about tea.
Work comes with work, and once I start playing with the materials they inspire themselves and lend themselves to other things and it just rolls on. I write down ideas or make something quickly and chuck it in the box and let it sit there. I forget about them sometimes and pull them out and think, Oh yeah, that is nice.
Basically I just go about what I have to do, getting things done and trying not to get distracted.
I find I work better in the afternoon and night, that is just how my body clock has set itself. If I’m listening to a radio play in the afternoon that goes for an hour and a half, I find that time goes very quickly and I’m really concentrated on the task.
I’ll get stuck into something like doing the drapes of a headpiece or looking for a particular bead. Or talking. Kristine likes talking. I do too, but if I really feel like not talking, I will put my headphones on and listen to a podcast on my phone.
I teach at RMIT one evening a week. I enjoy teaching. It actually gets me out of the studio because I am a bit of a hermit really.
If I don't have something to specifically go to and do, sometimes I will just potter around in the studio and water the plants.
I think it's a displacement activity, whereas when I get stuck into work I work very hard, but it is sometimes hard to start.
I got diagnosed with a very low vitamin D deficiency because I hardly ever see the sun. So when the sun is going to down and it is nice outside, I will walk my bike home with my headphones on and listen to a podcast or music as I go home. If it's a particularly nice evening, sometimes I will almost run. People must think I’m stupid running alongside the bike, probably thinking, Why doesn’t he get on the bike? – but it just makes walking home through the same streets a bit more interesting.
Honestly my evening meals are so simple. It is just generally broccoli with a bit of grated cheese on it or some tuna with broccoli. Broccoli is my mainstay.
I have hardly any food at home. I might have some cheese, a tin of tuna, definitely broccoli and carrots, but that is about it. If I’m going to eat again I’ll eat in the evening but not as much as breakfast.
I’ve got a really strong lamp over my bed and I’ll lie on the bed and work on whatever. I do like late night trash TV, I have to say. Things like Embarrassing Bodies and American Pickers, but I’m a channel flicker. I don't know why I like watching it, perhaps to remind me that my life is okay. [Laughs]
Generally I will go to bed around 11.30 p.m, but occasionally if there is an old movie on SBS I will stay up and watch it because I don't see many movies.
If I know I’m going out the next night, I will go through the wardrobe and pick out some things to take with me to the studio the next day. People always say I must spend hours choosing outfits, but generally it's quite arbitrary where I think that'll do and chuck it on the bed!
PART II: WEEKEND ROUTINE
Saturdays are spent at the studio and usually when I see most of my brides. In the evening I might have dinner somewhere or go and visit my sister and mother in Bacchus Marsh and stay overnight and catch the train back in the morning.
Sundays I work at Myer – I have one Sunday off a month like a housemaid.
Generally, on that Sunday off I will arrange to do something with my family and we will go to a gallery, have lunch somewhere or see a film.
But as far as social life goes, I generally text people and talk to them that way. Funnily enough, a lot of friends come and see me at the studio. I say if the blind is up or the door is open, I am here, so people just drop in.
I don't know if that makes me selfish or stay-at-home, but I guess I am happy in my own little environment – I actually get anxious when I am away from the studio.
PART III: BEHIND THE SCENES
On being a self-taught milliner …
In most millinery studios you have a head of work room who will dish out simple tasks to new milliners, and then you climb the ladder until you are doing some designing and blocking.
I never did that – I sort of did it all myself and there are probably holes in my education as a milliner.
I became well known before I really had the chance to complete an education and sort of sprang a bit premature, which was kind of embarrassing in a way, because I thought, Oh god, I’m not a milliner, I’m just sort of mucking around with materials and trying to make something of it. But now days, who cares? There are people calling themselves milliners who safety-pin a flower to a headband, so whatever. It’s just semantics really.
On the flipside of having lots of ideas …
Basically I’m an ideas person who has applied themselves to making hats. That's sort of one of my gifts in a way, and my problem in another in that because ideas do come easily, it sort of leads to distractions.
Ideas not acted upon are cheap – and if they are not acted upon you might as well not have had them.
I believe psychologists call it the flight of thoughts, where they come very, very quickly and kind of interrupt the flow of the day.
But I guess I just have to accept that it is the way my brain works and it has worked like that for quite awhile.
On the expectation to be extravagant …
Perhaps it’s because I’m a frustrated actor – most actors are crackers and introverts and they get out on the stage and become this character or a part.
I’m not playing a part when I’m being me – I’m me obviously – but sometimes people almost expect me to be extravagant.
If I go to an event and I’m dressed down, people ask what’s the matter?, but I just say I didn't feel like it. I don't question other people about their clothes, but for some reason people associate me with dressing up and that is fine – it's nice to be associated with something.
On personal style …
I have a lot of clothes. A lot. And just keep adding to them. But I see it as part of my job in a way to have nice things to wear. I don’t spend a lot of money on clothes – I always buy on sale, I buy great things from op-shops and sometimes people will give me a piece as well.
I enjoy putting looks together and experimenting on myself as sort of a little canvas I guess, and being a bit of a walking installation.
I enjoy challenging myself when I wear the full beaded masks or really, really, really high shoes or a corset I can't sit down in. I just sort of enjoy that because it is impractical and silly. But I am also very much into the history of clothing and why we dress a particular way.
I guess I’m a bit of a magpie because I love minimalism and I also love maximalism. I kind of dress myself in the mood I am feeling for that particular time
On not having a structured routine …
Thinking about it now, I probably need more of a structured routine. I know there are people who really thrive off having this done at that hour, and they just get annoyed if this or that isn't happening, or something doesn't go to plan it tends to upset them. Whereas if something doesn’t happen, I just shrug my shoulders and get on with it.
On being alone, but not lonely …
I really like solitude and being by myself. I never get lonely – it is not one of my things. I get crazy, but that is another thing. [Laughs] But I can go days and days without seeing people.
I don't dislike people at all, I like people, but I’m quite happy being by myself and sometimes the best things happen when I am alone – I come up with good ideas that I can work on, that kind of stuff.
On getting ready for social events …
If it is something really, really special like the opening night of the Gaultier exhibition, then we will put aside say three-quarters of a day if we are doing full hair and makeup. But on average it will take an hour.
An alarm will go off an hour and a half before we have to leave for an event so that gives us time to wrap up what we are doing and get ready.
I’ve got this old Victoria Bitters bag that I cart around with me on the bike, so I put whatever outfit I’m going to wear from home in that and bring it with me to the studio in the morning. And hey presto change-o!
On appreciating the simple things …
I don't cook. I did want to be a chef at one stage, and I can cook if I want to, but because there is just me there, I'll just have something simple. Perhaps because there are enough elaborate things going on in my life – and enough imaginative things going on in my head.
Sometimes I crave very simple things and just want to have something simple to eat.
"I’m not a perfectionist – I know that perfectionism is a way to stifle yourself, but I'm very aware that I'm only here for a limited time, and time can't be wasted." – Richard Nylon
Rome by Robert Hughes
"The one I just found something great in" – i.e. any assorted charity shop