Sally Steinmann’s Hats Off to Horses Print E-mail

America’s Best Racing
The Jockey Club Website
October 2013

It’s all about the drama.

Sally Faith Steinmann has always looked at the Kentucky Derby as theater where women arrive at the grand, glorious stage of Churchill Downs, making their stylish entrances.Hats 001

It’s the vivid colors, gorgeous brims and dazzling attention to detail that set off Steinmann’s creations as one-of-a-kind couture Kentucky Derby hats. Custom handmade pieces, evolving from design to shaping and finishing, each hat provides an air of confidence and panache.

“It’s like stepping outside yourself and playing a part in this grand pageantry,” Steinmann says. “Each woman wants something unique, something that will always remind her of her special day at Churchill Downs. In our culture, we don't have all that many occasions like this. It’s dressing up in a parade of hats. There is nothing like it, from the infield to Millionaire's Row, and anyone can participate.”

For the fifth consecutive year, Steinmann’s Maggie Mae Designs and Old Friends are teaming up for a unique six-month online shopping experience beginning November 1 with their "Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby" online auction series. The spectacular Derby hats are created and donated by Steinmann with all proceeds going to Old Friends-- the thoroughbred aftercare facility in Georgetown, Ky. Old Friends take care of 118 retired racehorses in Kentucky with another 14 outside of Saratoga, N. Y. They are the only thoroughbred rescue/retirement facility specializing in the care of stallions.

Hats 002The first in this series is the “Sean Avery” hat which was recently modeled by jockey Rosie Napravnik. An additional five hand-crafted hats will be put up for auction to honor selected retired thoroughbreds at their Dream Chase Farm facility. Steinmann sees her hats as soft sculpture where she weaves in the vivid silks colors the horse raced in and the personality of that individual horse, into each creation.

Steinmann talks regularly to the people at Old Friends, especially photographers Matt Wooley and Rick Capone who capture the horses during the daily routines.

“I get their impressions, their observations related to the spirit of the horse,” Steinmann notes. “Those are my clues. Those folks are my hands and eyes, they are invaluable. It’s time consuming research, but I love it. I get a feel for the horse’s personality and craft that into each hat.”

A small, tough hard-knocking horse owned by Black Swan Stable, Sean Avery was a Grade-1 winner at Saratoga.

“I sat at my sewing table that was covered with black swan images of all shapes and sizes,” Steinmann recounts. “My design is all about the curve of the neck, the curve of the swan, the deep orange-red bill. The sooty black feathers are a lot larger and wilder than a lot of birds. They are almost wing-like.”

Steinmann launched Maggie Mae Designs, a website business featuring ladies’ couture millinery, in 1998. Today, she creates custom hats for weddings and horse sporting events around the world, as well as everyday wear, seasonal hats, cocktail hats, church hats and hats for hair loss.

She takes a living, breathing animal and creates a symbolic piece of art out of fabric and thread.

“These Derby hats have really stretched me as artist,” admits Steinmann, who works out of a small studio on the upper floor of a house in Cape Cod, Mass. “From working on these creations I’ve developed a certain technique that would never have occurred to me. Now, the spirit of a horse is running through all of the hats I create.”

The first four years of the Derby hat fundraiser have been a nice success-- nearly $17,000 has been raised. Steinmann purchases all the materials to build the hats and donates her time. A highly personal and very tactile process, designing a Derby hat can take from three weeks to two months from start to finish. Bids on the hats have ranged from $700 to $1500.

“When Sally first approached me I didn’t know what to think, but what I soon realized was her artistry and attention to detail is superb,” says Old Friends founder Michael Blowen, a former film critic at the Boston Globe. “In the beginning I was a little surprised the hats generated so much interest and income. Look closely and you’ll see that they truly are evocative of the incredible spirit of each horse. They really are quite spectacular.”   

In the same way a painter communicates with a custom palette, a milliner speaks with fabric. Unlike many Derby hats that are traditionally created in synthetic straw type materials, Steinmann’s are created out of fabric - dupioni silk, silk organza, satin, tulle, and chiffon. Rose curls, fabric leaves, sashes, bows, Marguerites, and "feathers that dance in the sunlight" create dazzling combinations of texture and hue.Hats 003

“Using fabric gives the hats a certain warmth and texture that really works for creating hats to represent real horses that are living, breathing creatures,” Steinmann explains. “I think of the fabrics as clay, the process one of sculpting, and the result is a kind of fabric sculpture. Old Friends also sends me some of each horse's hair which I weave into a heart shape and stitch into a hidden place somewhere within the hat. It makes the whole creation very tangible, and personal.”

It was Barbaro’s valiant fight for survival in 2006 and Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s inspiring actions that sparked Steinmann’s allegiance.  Having designed a hat for “Run for the Roses for Barbaro” in 2007, Steinmann realized she could do something to make a difference. A year later Foxwoods Resort and Thoroughbred Charities of America requested a hat to honor Rick Porter’s ill-fated filly, Eight Belles. Word of her classic designs soon spread across the thoroughbred industry.  

When a friend of jockey Rosie Napravnik explained why Blowen started Old Friends and its mission, she wanted to do what she could do to support them. She joined the Old Friends board last spring.

“I’m working with them on benefits and fund-raisers as well as collaborating on ideas to create awareness,” Napravnik relates after a morning of exercising horses. “I’m also able to provide some inside information on which racehorses might be candidates to join the group at Old Friends.”

In early October Napravnik modeled the first in this year’s series of Derby hats and has agreed to model several more with the horses they honor in the coming months. A feisty 7-year old Sean Avery added another dimension to the October photo shoot.

“It was a bit challenging wearing a dress and high heels, but I got him under control,” Napravnik says with a laugh. “He is still young and frisky. When Michael approached me I thought modeling the hats was a very cool idea. I’m pleased to be the model. It’s a great way to promote what Old Friends does.”

 Hats 004It was Fair Hill Training Center exercise rider and thoroughbred welfare advocate Alex Brown who suggested Steinmann should team up with Old Friends using her Derby hats as a fund-raiser.

“I was thrilled,” Steinmann recalls. “I remember seeing Michael in an interview being asked why he wanted to help thoroughbreds and not some other worthy cause. His response, ‘Everyone has a little spot in the world. One tiny little dot. This is my dot.’

“Well, Maggie Mae Designs has a dot as well,” Steinmann notes. “Hats and horses are my two passions.  Instead of two isolated dots, this Derby hat fundraiser has made a connection between us in our mutual concern for the horses. I am pleased to honor these horses so I am happy to invest my time and resources in any way I can.”

Year five of the series begins November 1, 2013 and runs through April 2014. For six months, the featured auction hat is posted on Steinmann’s website and the Old Friends website With an online EBay auction format, there is a minimum bid required of $200 and a reserve is set at $500. Each hat is available for bidding for 10 days only, from the 1st of the month through the 11th. Anyone interested in bidding is encouraged to go to the Old Friends website and click on the EBay link provided after the first of each month. Winners are announced each month (unless they prefer to remain anonymous) and on the first day of the following month a new one-of-a-kind millinery creation will be placed up for bid to celebrate another resident of Old Friends.
To view the hats and horses they honor from our first four years of the auction, please visit the Old Friends Hat Auction Portfolio

Photo of Rosie and Sean Avery courtesy of Matt Wooley.


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