If you want to get ahead, get a hat, so the old saying goes. However, if you want to get yourself noticed, then make sure to get that hat from Pearls & Swine.
It's what customers across the world have been doing in increasing numbers since 2008 – and for proof of the show-stopping powers of this high-visibility headgear, just check out the front page of the Wednesday 17 June 2015 edition The Times, where interior designer to the rich and famous, Anouska Lancaster, grabs the attention in a typically over-the-top creation she'd worn to Royal Ascot the previous day.
And where was Ms Lancaster's hat made? In the basement of an anonymous house on a cul-de-sac in Thornhill.
It's from this bolthole, with its classic West Yorkshire vista of textile mills jostling for position with fields of harvest stubble, that Bink (the name she prefers to use for some very personal reasons) creates her wondrously off-the-wall hats and fascinators.
She's been doing that since 2008, twelve years after arriving in the UK from her native South Africa. However, it's in more recent years that the business has really taken off, with the web-based operation wowing buyers from New York to Tokyo and all points in between.
Bink's back story is almost as colourful as the spotted hat with pink dinosaur skeleton which she'd just finished when we met. Brought up in a deeply religious household, by parents who didn't believe in formal education, she arrived in the UK in 1996. “I came over on a two-year work visa – back then they'd let us in – thinking it was just a stage on this idea to see the world,” she explained. “At first I did care work, as I'd done in this South Africa, until one day I found myself knitting a scarf for a terminally ill woman who I was looking after at the time.
“I'd never knitted a scarf before – and I've never knitted one since – but suddenly I realised that creating things is what I wanted to do.”
At this time she was living in London but when she met Trafford Parsons – an artist, DJ and veteran of the late 80s Manchester music scene which revolved around the Hacienda – in 2007, the pair soon moved north to the house they now share with four cats (one of whom, Delilah, kept us company throughout the interview). It was then she began to experiment with hats, which she sold through her Facebook site, and the Pearls & Swine story began in earnest.
Although Bink can find ideas for her hats in just about any place or situation, a generally unwelcome aspect of the British climate is a particularly rich source. “Weirdly enough, the lack of sunlight is a big part of my inspiration. Over the years I've been here, the longing for sunlight has become almost overwhelming, and because there isn't enough light and colour in the UK, I feel I have to create brightly-coloured things to counterbalance it.”
However, her headgear is far from being merely an exercise in radiating cheerfulness and light
“What I create is my truth and there are a lot of recurring themes, like religion, which play a big part in what I create,” said Bink. “There's a ying-yang to my work – ugly and beautiful, a horror and something really pretty.
“So if I do something with flowers, then I like to put an insect on it, to juxtapose the two. Nothing in life is only beautiful, nothing is perfect: there's always going to be a fly in the ointment. And that lies behind the name Pearls & Swine, that balance between the two – although I do think pigs are beautiful in a way!”
At this point, Trafford added an aside which nicely summed up what the name, and the ethos behind it, are all about. “Pearls & Swine also indicates it might not be something that everybody likes or gets. But if you buy it and you like it, we feel vindicated.”
“We're not trying to be a high street band and we're not trying to compete with high street shops,” continued Bink. “I actually struggle with orders because there's no excitement, it's just going through the motions of being creative.”
So how, then, does she work? What is the process by which one of her headpieces makes the transition from flash of inspiration to wearable item?
“Once I have the basic idea – that's the inspirational part of it – then I have to ask myself 'how do I make that real?'” she replied. “It's about combining creativity and practicality.
“However, I don't have to rush, I'm not making them to order or to someone else's idea: it has to be a hat that excites me, I need to create something that I've never seen before.
“The interesting part of creating for me, I can only describe it as like reading a book. You've no idea what's going to be at the end of it but it's the best book ever. You're so
excited reading this book and you can't wait to get to the end.
“That's what millinery is like for me – so if you asked me to remake this hat ten times [she was referring to the pink dinosaur job] I would struggle, because I'd know what was coming at the end.”
That approach, Bink believes, is what has allowed Pearls & Swine to survive and now thrive, by establishing a position in the market which very few competitors are seeking to get a piece of.
“I think there are a lot of people who are happy to rest on their laurels, but that's when you get eaten up by the opposition,” she said. “The
way I stay ahead and the way I stay interesting is by pushing myself creatively and by not accepting that there are any limits on what I can do with an idea.”
Bink's creativity doesn't begin and end with headgear – in fact the whole house is eye-popping testament to her wide and wild tastes and talent. In a corner of the lounge stands a 1960s bar that Del Boy would have killed for, while on the walls of the same room hang dozens of those kitsch portraits which no house circa 1970 was complete without. But perhaps the room which sums it all up is the downstairs loo, entertainingly/unsettlingly/insultingly/inspiringly (take your pick according to your standpoint) festooned with dozens of images and artefacts from possibly every religion the planet has to offer, right down to the lurid Blessed Virgin Mary on the toilet lid – but then she did say religion was an important strand within her creative thought!
“My world is quite small and quite dark so I love to decorate it brightly,” she explained. “I do collage art under the name 3 Penny Uprights: I'll go to the market and buy horrible bits of art then I'll write words on them, just funny little things that reflect on my
mood or something that's given me inspiration. But in the end, I always go back to millinery, I don't know why: it's just the way I like to tell my story.”
Pearls & Swine (and its companion business Temptress of Waikiki, which concentrates on less avant garde designs) are undoubtedly a success by any definition, yet Bink's approach to her business is as unconventional as her products.
“For me, the creating part is what I love, it's the reason I get up every day. One of the reasons I create new work as often as I do is to cope
with the dullness of being in business. The paperwork, uploading things to the website: these things aren't exciting to me. What is interesting is making something I've never seen before.
“I don't measure success by how many hats I sell, it's whether what I'm selling comes from a process of creativity. And, yes, I'm being creative – so that means Pearls & Swine is a success.”
Having left London for Yorkshire eight years ago, Bink has no desire to go back, pointing out that the rent on the three-storey house with a studio and scenic view is the same as for a shared flat in London. More than that, she has become an enthusiastic cheerleader for the north in general and one much-maligned northern town in particular
“I always try to hashtag Dewsbury on my Instagram and Twitter because I believe we people from this part of the world have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “I'm proud to live there and while I'm aware of its reputation, there are positive things going on, too, and Pearls & Swine is part of that.
“To be able to say a little nobody from Dewsbury has been asked to
do a workshop at the Victoria & Albert Museum, I see that not as an
achievement for me but as kudos for the town. There are good things happening in the town and I'm happy that Pearls & Swine is letting people all over the world know that.”
To see many more examples of Bink's work, go to www.pearlsandswine.com.