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À la Mode

When Tanya Benzaquen began sketching hats in the margins of her middle-school notebooks — form-fitting hats with sequin starbursts and wide-brimmed hats with floral accents — she knew she was onto something.

Fifteen years later, Benzaquen, now in her late 20s, is an award-winning hat-maker. Her designs appeal to two very different sets: Orthodox women seeking to cover their hair and hipsters hoping to top off their trendy ensembles with her colorful creations.

Benzaquen designs, sculpts and embellishes her line, called “Hats by Tanya,” out of the Upper West Side apartment she shares with two roommates. After finishing a hat, which usually takes about three hours, Benzaquen will steam it in her kitchen oven to preserve its form — that’s 15 minutes at 250 degrees.

“On several occasions,” she said, “my roommates have come home expecting fresh-baked brownies and were disappointed to find the only thing in the oven was a hat.”

Benzaquen’s small bedroom doubles as her studio and showroom. On a recent visit, a reporter found her “fedora-inspired” Spring-Summer 2004 collection displayed in rows on bookshelves. Her new line launches this month at boutiques in Manhattan including The Hat Shop in SoHo and La-Di-Da on the Upper West Side, and at other locales in New York City and northern New Jersey. Her hats will soon be available in Los Angeles, Benzaquen said.

The new line features brightly colored straw hats trimmed with lacquered feathers, grosgrain ribbon and intricate stitching. The hats cost anywhere from $95 to $250.

A teaching assistant in a kindergarten class at a Manhattan Jewish day school, Benzaquen, a Sabbath-observant Jew, spends many of her evenings and Sundays designing and handcrafting her one-of-a-kind creations. “My students are always asking, ‘Are you a millionaire?’ I tell them, ‘No, no, I’m a milliner, not a millionaire.’”

At least, not yet.

But her business is booming. In addition to a growing number of retailers, she has scores of loyal clients throughout the country.

“I do a lot of selling in the Orthodox community, but generally I’d say my hats are geared to the general fashionable public,” Benzaquen said. “My customers range from elegant ladies in their 50s to young, trendy dressers who want to have something they know no one else will have.”

The wide appeal of “Hats by Tanya” is an anomaly in millinery, said La-Di-Da owner Sema Timurhan, who stocks Benzaquen’s designs. “Usually the hats that downtown women buy and the hats that Orthodox women buy are very different,” Timurhan said. “But Tanya’s hats — everybody loves them. The shapes are conservative, but the details are colorful and funky. Somehow she manages to bring classic and trendy together in one hat.”

Another one of Benzaquen’s retailers, Linda Pagan, owner of The Hat Shop, said she feels it’s important for hat retailers to support the work of home-based milliners. “You can’t make hats en masse and expect to get Tanya’s level of skill and craftsmanship,” said Pagan, whose store features the works of about 30 independent milliners. “When it comes to things like gloves, shoes and hats — not a lot of which are made in the U.S. anymore — it really shouldn’t be about the bottom line.”

The daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, Benzaquen lived in Essex, England, and Maracaibo, Venezuela, before her father became the spiritual leader of Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Holim in the mid-1980s.

Benzaquen graduated from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in 1996 and went on to study millinery at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

“While I had designed hats on paper for years, I really had no idea how they were made,” she said. “At FIT, I learned the technical part of millinery — it’s a very physical process, pulling felt around wooden blocks — and also discovered how far I could go creatively.”

After graduating with her milliner’s certificate, she showed off her designs in her hometown of Seattle and began crafting hats for women in the city’s Orthodox community. Among her early clients was Shelly Russak, who commissioned Benzaquen to create a hat for her to

wear to her son’s bar mitzvah. “The first time I worked with Tanya, I kept saying to her, ‘Please, I don’t want the hat to look like everyone else’s,” said Russak, who now owns more than a dozen “Hats by Tanya.”

“Now I know she makes hats that fit your personality,” said Russak, noting that often when she buys a new suit, she’ll send a swatch of fabric to Benzaquen, who then creates a hat to match.

Benzaquen is very in touch with her clientele, said Casey Bush, president of the Headwear Information Bureau, the millinery trade organization that presented Benzaquen with the Milli Award for outstanding design for women’s headwear in 2000 and again in 2002. “Tanya takes into consideration each client’s facial structure, age and tastes — and designs to meet her needs,” Bush said.

Benzaquen said that when it comes to fashion, there’s a real tilt toward conformity in the Orthodox world. “A lot of the hats you see people wearing are the same shape and similar trims,” she said. “You’ll go to synagogue and see 20 of the same hats, more or less, just in different colors.”

But Benzaquen hopes to change that. “Orthodox women,” she said, “can come to me and see that they can cover their hair and be fashionable and cutting-edge all at the same time.”

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