Creatives: Chee Sau Fen

Instead of making hats with chemicals and artificial materials, the self-taught Chee weaves hers with plant fibres and natural extracts.

Creatives: Chee Sau Fen

Hats are usually made using glues, chemical stiffener sprays and wires but not those by Chee, who shapes hers mainly by folding, weaving and sewing. The self-taught hatmaker behind Heads of State Millinery is known for eye-catching headwear that’s eco-friendly too. Her lightweight and cheery creations are mostly made with abaca fibre and coloured with natural dye extracted from plants and flowers.

What led you to become a milliner?

In 2011, I won a sustainable fashion competition organised by the Workforce Development Agency and the Textile and Fashion Federation with dresses made from recycled nylon stockings. But I knew I didn’t want to be another fashion designer.

As part of the competition, I attended a sustainable fashion workshop and conceived Heads of State Millinery as a business plan. At the encouragement of my instructor, I submitted it to a Pitch It! contest for creative entrepreneurs — and won!

Your hats are made with abaca fibre and handwoven by women from the Daraghuyan community in southern Philippines. Why is sustainability so important to your creative process?

Before becoming a hatmaker, I worked as an arts manager at Singapore Art Museum and other non-profit organisations, which made me more conscious about maximising resources. I learnt about abaca fibre in 2012 when I visited Cebu. It comes from the upper trunk of the abaca tree, a relative of the banana plant, and is native to the Philippines. I thought using abaca textiles could help create employment for the community and preserve their weaving tradition.

What challenges did you have to overcome?

I had to make effort to build a relationship with the community. When I visited the Daraghuyan villagers, they wanted to ask their ancestral spirits for blessings. So a ritual was performed, during which three chickens were sacrificed, cooked and shared. After the ritual, it rained but the skies quickly cleared up — which they took as an auspicious sign.

You also conduct workshops, where you teach participants how to craft their own hats. Why is imparting knowledge important for you?

My creativity is driven by my curiosity, and my ability to build empathy with others. I enjoy exploring new knowledge and techniques, so I never fear running out of ideas. As a self-taught designer, I’ve benefited so much from craftsmen who shared with me their techniques and wisdom. So I’m excited that what I teach can become a new craft. I want to inspire others to discover that design is not done at the desk; it’s done on the ground while observing people and their needs.

Your creative hero?

Naoto Fukasawa, the Japanese industrial designer who’s helped steer Muji and worked with brands such as Herman Miller and Alessi. His work has so much elegance, simplicity and ingenuity.

Read more about Singapore’s other creative minds here.

This story first appeared in the September issue of A.

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