Opening during the pandemic was stressful, admits Ranelle Larocque, owner of Queen Bee Millinery in Perth, but as it turned out, her timing was just right.
“It was scary going into it, I’d just signed the lease and then everything shut down,” she says. “But it’s amazing, you know, build it and they will come; people wanted something special, especially after what we’ve been going through, they wanted something elegant, they wanted something unique.”
If creating bespoke hats isn’t unusual enough, Laroque says she started the business as a form of self-help. A military wife, she says she had to attend regular formal functions with her husband but was uncomfortable in crowds.
“Wearing an elegant hat gave me something to talk about and made me feel the best version of myself and it also gave me a bit of personal space and a bit of confidence,” says Larocque.
She started collecting hats in her 20s and, from there, started teaching herself how to make them. All the while, her passion for them grew. Soon she was making hats for other military wives who had seen hers and a dream was born.
Before embarking on a storefront in downtown Perth, Larocque enrolled in the Starter Company Plus program, a business bootcamp offered through the Small Business Advisory Centre. Her willingness and ability to learn stood her in good stead.
“It was intense and there were things I hadn’t thought about. I hadn’t realized the sheer amount of marketing and social media knowledge that a camera-shy person like me was going to have to do, like reels and selfies, because I couldn’t get a model during the pandemic,” admits Larocque.
The administrative side of the business was the relatively easy part, but she was equally determined to conquer the rest.
“She initially didn’t have a website, so we helped her with getting one up and put her in touch with our Ask the Expert program. In the end, she revamped the way she was doing business,” says Cindy James, executive director of the Small Business Advisory Centre.
According to James, Larocque proved herself not only open to listening and taking advice, but also willing to push herself and get out in front of people and do events like hat try-ons and consumer shows. She was also open to working with others, partnering with local artists to create collaborative bespoke hats that connected with the artwork.
During those stressful months of the pandemic, it was Larocque’s online business, bolstered by a robust Instagram presence, that kept her afloat.
“She ships her hats all over the world, it’s a very niche market,” explains James.
Once business got back to near-normal, Larocque found herself in the right place at the right time. During the lead-up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June, she says hats flew off the shelf and then, when wedding season arrived, she was startled by the amount of interest.
“It’s been wedding-ageddon because nobody has had a wedding in two years, so they may still be having smaller weddings, but they want opulence and elegance, and they’re willing to spend a little bit more because they’ve been saving or they just feel like they deserve it,” says Larocque.
A big part of her success is her own passion and joy for hats.
“Every hat in here goes on the right head. Nobody ever walks out without the right hat. And you just see how people react when they find the right hat: the shoulders go back, the chin comes up. It’s like they’re able to express themselves and it’s nice to be part of that,” she says.
It turns out there’s quite a market for unique and elegant hats, the kind seen at Ascot Racecourse in the U.K.
“Hat lovers are a special type of person; they will buy a hat because they love hats. They collect hats, they don’t need a reason, they don’t need an event,” says Larocque.
On a personal level, Larocque says the biggest hurdle for her was getting over “imposter syndrome.”
“I think all creative people go through it and especially as I’m self-taught and was doubting, because I didn’t go to such-and-such a school,” recalls Larocque.
In the first lockdown, Larocque nearly panicked but credits James for talking her through her misgivings and putting her in touch with every available grant program.
“Ranelle was able to get funding early on and that made it possible for her to add to her hat block collection, allowing her to go bigger and create more interesting hats,” says James. Hat blocks are wooden forms carved into the shape of a hat. Hat-making materials such as sinamay are stretched over the blocks to create a hat. Once a hat is given the shape it needs, Larocque adds feathers, flowers, jewelry, veils or whatever else the design demands to complete a look.
With new hat blocks in hand and a retail hiatus forced by the pandemic, Larocque took advantage of the time to build up her stock.
“It’s not a fast process and some hats aren’t fully formed when I’m thinking about them, they take time to come together to be clear and come into focus. With custom work, I interpret what people want and it goes a little easier because I have parameters, but when I’m designing for the shop and for myself it can take a little longer ... it’s like a story you’re telling yourself to design it,” explains Larocque.
Now she admits she’s running into the enviable problem of finding time to make new hats because her stock is getting low. Barely into her third year of business, she is seriously contemplating hiring an employee.
“Millinery has always inspired me. The design and creation of every single headpiece brings about a sort of magical experience that I want to share with my clients. I want to bring about that magic, that feeling that you can be your confident self, with a little extra sparkle of joy and enchantment,” says Larocque on her website.
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