Factory Tour
Mühlbauer Headwear

If you’ve recently strolled through the streets of Vienna’s city center, chances are you’re familiar with Mühlbauer, the 107-year-old hat-maker whose two flagships, tiny jewelboxes designed by the German-Italian architect duo Kühn Malvezzi, are located just a stone’s throw from Adolf Loos’s infamous American Bar. Ditto if you’ve been paying attention to the ever-changing hat wardrobe of Brad Pitt — who’s a fan — or if you’ve been shopping for accessories in chic department stores from Bergdorf’s to Le Bon Marché. The millinery has made such a name for itself in the past few years — collaborating with cult fashion brands like Fabrics Interseason and outfitting the likes of Yoko Ono and Meryl Streep — it’s hard to believe that in 2001, when Klaus Mühlbauer took over the company with his sister Marlies, “nobody even knew that Mühlbauer was related to hats,” he says.

The company was founded in 1903 as a small shop and atelier in the Viennese suburb of Floridsdorf by Klaus and Marlies’s great-grandmother Julianna. “She was probably talented with her hands and liked to make beautiful things, but in those days being a milliner was as common as working in IT today,” says Klaus. “Everybody wore a hat.” Their grandfather Robert made Mühlbauer into a household name, opening 16 stores in Vienna and retiring at the end of his life having made a small fortune solely in hats. The turning point came in the late ’60s. “Suddenly people wanted to show their hair, and they didn’t want to be like their parents,” says Klaus. “So when my father came in, he transformed the company into something else entirely.” In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the company focused primarily on women’s clothes, well-made but affordably priced, “good style, but not extraordinary,” says Klaus — in other words, the kind of goods that suffered greatly when stores like Zara and H&M began to conquer European capitals like Vienna.

It was Klaus and Marlies who returned the focus to headwear. “Even through they had become a side product, hats were all along the most remarkable product in the whole company,” says Klaus. The siblings shut down all but two of the Vienna stores, transforming one into a hat boutique and one into Mode Mühlbauer, a showcase for the remaining fashion pieces as well as ready-to-wear brands like A.P.C., MM6, and Cacharel. Production began to take its cues from high-end fashion houses, with bi-annual collections presented in New York and Europe and lookbooks created by famous artists and designers. In 2001, Mühlbauer was producing around 3,000 hats per year. These days, the 16-person atelier churns out nearly 13,000 headpieces per year from its 1,000-square-foot facilities, where I had the pleasure of visiting this spring. “For industrial production, 13,000 is nothing, but this is all handmade,” says Klaus. “At the end, when you touch the product, when you hold it in your hand, you see the difference.” During my visit, Klaus took a break from preparing the fall collection to introduce me to the workings of the shop and to demonstrate how exactly Mühlbauer’s high-fashion headpieces are made.

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Mühlbauer’s small atelier is located on the second floor of an old building near Vienna’s bustling Schwedenplatz. Greeting visitors at the top of the staircase is a series of tram advertisements from the 1950s and ’60s.

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“Up until the ’70s, this was one of the most important places in Vienna to advertise,” says Klaus. “Nowadays, it’s all for sex shops and English lessons.”

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Some of Mühlbauer’s hats are sewn from a pattern like clothes, but the majority are made from felt or straw, shaped and stretched on a wooden mold and then finished and trimmed by the milliners a few rooms over. The process begins here, where the felt is made damp by dipping it into water mixed with a stiffening agent, and then run through a wringer to rid it of excess moisture.

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The felt is then placed for a minute or two in the 100-year-old steamer shown here, which heats the fabric to a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the felt has been made hot and humid, it can be shaped more easily.

stretching

Most of Mühlbauer’s workers are tailors who learned the hat trade on-site. Kostas, who showed me how to shape a hat, is one of the exceptions, having trained with a milliner in Germany. Here, he’s stretched the brim over the mold, pulling it taut like a fitted sheet over a mattress.

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Over the years, Mühlbauer has designed hundreds of molds. The prototypes, demonstrated here, are made in-house from a mix of wood shavings and adhesive. “These can only be used 30-50 times before they break and degrade and then you have to remake them from wood,” Klaus explains. The more durable wood molds are outsourced to a manufacturer in the Czech Republic.

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Each mold is labeled with a shape number. “We have around 5,000 different shapes, and we have been very bad about making an archive,” says Klaus. “But at least we have careful descriptions of every style, so we can remake them in the same way every time.”

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Once the felt has been shaped, it’s placed into an oven to dry for two to three hours at a temperature of 160-180 degrees. It’s then brushed and finished to remove all dirt and to soften the felt before it’s handed over to the atelier.

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Yarn shelf.

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Finishing the trim of a panama-style hat. Prices for Mühlbauer hats start at around 70 euros and go up to about 250 to 300. But a hat with an unusual amount of craftwork can sell for as much as 1,000 euros.

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Mühlbauer’s Danish intern Christina at work in the millinery.

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The felt storeroom. Most of Mühlbauer’s hats are made from the finest grade rabbit fur, sourced from Portugal and the Czech Republic. “We try to engage companies close by, of course, but you can’t find the best of everything in the region,” Klaus explains. The straw hails from Ecuador, Panama, China or Africa, for example. “But for next winter, we found a fabric called forest sheep tweed, which comes from a small herd in upper Austria, where they raise sheep in an organic way and use wool that isn’t bleached or dyed.

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On the middle and bottom shelves, fabrics to line and stiffen the hats — light beige or black viscose for fabric hats and stiffening materials that range from cotton to linen. On the top shelf are fabrics used for the actual hats.

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Readymade hats, waiting to be packed and shipped, line the main workroom.

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Shaped but not finished straw hats.

hats on desk

In Klaus’s office, mini top hats on special order for debutantes at the Viennese summer ball, Fête Impériale, to be held July 10 at the Spanish Riding School.

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Production order tags to accompany the hats all the way from their raw state to shipping.

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In the hallway, a painting of Klaus, a present from the company’s Swiss agent. “The women around me are models who have been photographed in the past for our advertisements. She took girls from several campaigns and arranged them around me, but I was too embarrassed to have a painting of myself in my office!” Klaus laughs.

lookbooks

For five or six years running, Mühlbauer has invited a different artist each season to create a singular image for the collection's lookbook. “The artists are completely free to do whatever they’d like,” says Klaus. “They can refer to the collection or they may not.”

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This poster, by the Turkish artist Songül Boyraz, captured life in the Mühlbauer workshop for the Autumn/Winter 2010/2011 campaign…

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… while this one, for the A/W 2009/2010 “It’s a Pleasure” collection, was taken by the German photographer Bernhard Fuchs.

pouf

For the S/S 2010 collection, Mühlbauer collaborated with the fashion brand Fabrics Interseason to create a series of small hats made from wicker, using an old Viennese caning technique. This veil-like Bubble style, also part of the collection, is one of Klaus’s favorites.

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A machine for stretching hats.

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Around the corner from the atelier is a stock room where the shipping and fulfilling is done and where stocks of rabbit fur are kept.

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The patterns are designed by Klaus and Marlies, but they’re usually printed by the felt producer. These hats are made from rabbit fur and only patterned to look like leopard.

head molds

A stockpile of wooden heads used for shop window displays.

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A complaint from a Japanese customer — “which we solved of course!” says Klaus.