Friday, April 06, 2007

Touches of whimsy

Rhonda Painter of Troutville creates hats designed to suit customers' personalities.
The Roanoke Times
By JoAnne Poindexter

Spending an afternoon with Rhonda Painter is like little girls playing dress-up.

The sunroom of the master bedroom of her Troutville home is filled with hats. A mirror sits on the floor and is easily tilted to view hats hanging from windows, stands and the wall.

Some of them have brims; some are brimless. A few are traditional; most are somewhat out of the ordinary.

For the most part, Painter's hats are works in progress -- waiting for the proper head to fit.

As she selects hats for a visitor to try on, Painter coos: "Look at the back. ... It's perfect."

Making hats, under the retail moniker of Whimsical Toppers, is Painter's current passion.

She has always loved wearing hats, especially while riding her horses, and would periodically refurbish old headdresses.

"I think hats are a necessary accessory," said Painter, a music teacher, equestrian, photographer, ballroom dancer and now a milliner.

"I just love the fact that you can hide yourself and be mysterious," she said as she pulled the brim of one of her fashions down onto her forehead.

"I think hats are just like clothes. They are really traditional or way out there," she said.

Painter's spring line included headpieces that are fashioned with animal prints, polka dots or bright colors -- one-of-a-kind creations for casual wear, church, Easter parades or a Kentucky Derby party.

Most are made of sinamay, a natural, handwoven fiber from the abaca plant that is also known as Manila hemp.

Each has a special embellishment -- beads, a vintage pin, a feather or ribbon -- and all are hand-sewn with a thin elastic to keep the hat from blowing away.

A lot of Painter's hats don't end up the way she starts them. She makes crowns and brims and keeps them on hand, but Painter seldom completely finishes a hat until the sale is finalized.

That's mainly to assure a proper fit, but Painter also wants her hats to reflect the individuals wearing them.

During a February trunk show at Three Graces, a Daleville boutique, customers often selected adornments, and matched colors that Painter hadn't considered. Those hats turned out to be unique and quite creative, Painter said.

"When you have a choice, I think, it becomes a part of your soul; it's your inner being," she said of allowing customers to have a say in the final style of their hats.

Painter's hats range from $68 to $225, depending on the fabric, embellishments and labor.

She's taken classes under world-renowned Waltraud Reiner, founder of the Melbourne (Australia) School of Millinery, and is planning to take additional courses this summer. Painter started reconditioning hats several years ago, but only began making them to sell about two years ago.

As a photographer who works in mixed media, Painter has designed her business cards, sales tags and even the advertising poster for her trunk show, but she said that most of her business comes via word of mouth.

Her customers are women and men, because some of her hats can be geared for both. She's sold her hats to high school girls going to proms and to Derby partygoers.

Before the trunk show, Cindy Finch, owner of Three Graces, purchased a black and cream colored brim hat with rhinestones for a cruise in the Bahamas. The islanders and other cruisers, especially the men, commented a lot on her hat, Finch said.

"It was unlike anything I've ever worn. I got so many compliments," Finch added. "When I wear it, I really feel special."

Finch described her boutique as "an atmosphere of playing dress-up for two days" when Painter held the February trunk show.

Painter reworked a number of hats that were finished or works in progress, Finch said. "She was creating the whole time. Her things are just works of art."

The creative side of Painter, who is a music teacher at Fairview Elementary School in Roanoke, balks at comments such as "I am uncomfortable in a hat" or "I have nowhere to wear a hat."

"It's my job to make you feel comfortable," she said. And, as for selecting the most proper attire, "you pick an adjective and we'll find a hat," Painter said, flashing a big, confident smile.

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