It's just a coincidence that Nancy Matt's name rhymes with "fancy hat." But given her affinity for fashion and her natural aptitude for designing imaginative, one-of-a kind chapeaus, it might as well be destiny.
One sticky summer evening on Broadway, the renowned millinery designer hurried into Encounter Boutique carrying a plastic bin piled with feathery fabrics. Matt, giddy to show off her newest creations, set down the bin and changed out of her walking shoes-black ballet flats-and into her outfit's real shoes-black stilettos with pink three-dimensional flowers attached at the toe of each shoe.
Encounter is one of two places (Departure at Albany International Airport is the other) you can find Matt's designs in-store, where they range in price from around $150 to close to $700. Alternatively, you can contact her directly under the label "Le Beau Chapeau" to purchase a hat, or to consult about a hat you may want her to design especially for you.
"The girls usually bring their dresses," Matt says of consultations with past customers. "Or I'm invited to the home and they start pulling from the closet. Maybe they want one piece - one hat - that will go with multiple clothing changes."
Matt has always had an eye for fashion, she says, offering advice to friends and her three sisters since she was a child. She broke into the fashion industry in high school by walking door to door to design companies in New York City, asking questions and making connections. She devoted herself to hats, because they, to her, were "the finishing accessory."
Out of the bin comes a multi-colored floral crown complete with fake moss, immediately snatched by store manager Danielle Patane, who claims it to be her new favorite. Next is a teardrop-shaped fascinator topped with a large peach rose and gold leaflets cascading off the right side. Matt positions it carefully on her head, rearranging her short blonde hair in a full-length mirror and looks back at Patane expectantly.
As a hat designer, Matt is the creative inspiration behind each piece. The designs - over 150 of them each Saratoga season - just come to her, she says.
"And thank goodness something new comes to me every season!" Matt says.
She doesn't, however partake in the physical construction process.
"When I create a piece, it starts with sketching," Matt says. "I send that sketch to a very talented woman in New York, and she actually constructs the hat frame. I choose the materials used and she inserts her creativity in how they will be best presented in the piece. We work wonderfully together, and have for at least 12 years."
Matt's pieces have been worn by elegant women including Mary Lou Whitney, Michelle Riggi, Margie Rotchford, Julie Bonnacio, American Pharaoh Owner Joanne Zayat and journalist Megyn Kelly. Three quarters of the women in the winner's circle when Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby in 2008 were wearing her designs. She even had the opportunity to design for First Lady of Kentucky Judi Patton when she presented the winner's trophy at the 1999 Kentucky Derby.
Matt admits she spends too many late hours concentrating on the perfect appearance of her hats. She works full time doing clerical and reception work for a design house, so often can't find the time to design until evening.
"I'm very fussy," Matt says. "But if the girls are going to make that investment, I want them to have the best product possible. I think it adds to the pride of the product when the girls are wearing it."
These girls - the women who seek out and wear Matt's hats - are very fashion savvy, Matt says.
"When they walk into a room they like to be wearing a piece that they are sure no other lady will have. And they love to match to their wardrobe."
Though each of her designs is entirely unique, Matt tends to put extra trim on many of her hats. In a crowd of hats, hers can be identified by authentic vintage trim she collects on her travels to Manhattan, Pennsylvania or Florida.
As for the trend of the entire hat industry, Matt says, all eyes are on Britain's major races, like the Ascot, and Princess Kate.
"She is really a factor," Matt says. "American women are looking more and more for her to dictate hat fashion."
Matt puts on a hat she had set aside when originally unloading her new designs. It is one she has kept for herself - a black fascinator that sits slightly tilted on her head, with a pink flower and a feather. As she looks in the mirror, it becomes clear the hat was designed to match her flowered high heels. It is truly "the finishing accessory." S