Her couture confections have appeared on Michelle Obama, the pages of Vogue and chic heads all over Churchill Downs. The visionary behind Forme Millinery is just as passionate about parenting her daughter.
Her cozy, jewel box of a shop in Mellwood Arts Complex is a mecca for hat lovers at Derby time. With its vintage hat stands and antique armoires filled with stunning one-of-a-kind hats, fascinators and headpieces, the place is an instant education in the art of millinery. One look at her masterpieces and you immediately comprehend the stark difference between hand-made and glue-gunned Derby hats. It’s no surprise. Making hats isn’t a hobby for Jenny Pfanensteil, it’s her passion and her craft.
A master milliner with a degree in costume design, Jenny Pfanensteil trained with milliners in New York and Australia before going out on her own in her hometown of Chicago doing millinery and theatrical costume designs. But it’s when she moved to Louisville three years ago that she made her dream of being a full-time milliner a reality. “I knew my clients were here, the Derby is here and I wanted to fully commit myself to this city and my art,” says Jenny. “Making the decision to move to Louisville was an important step in establishing myself as a serious milliner.”
The move turned out to be a good one.
“I love the creative energy, the support of local businesses and the excitement around the Derby,” she says. “Since I came here, I’ve devoted myself to my goal and good things have happened.”
From her new home base, Jenny has created patterns for McCall’s, designed micro-collections for Vineyard Vines, partnered with Rachel Zoe creating looks for her Covet app, published a book, The Making of a Milliner (Dover Press), and designed hats for Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. She’s also became the official designer for The Kentucky Derby Museum and launched a baby collection inspired by the recent birth of her daughter, Amelia. What’s next? “I’d like to help make Kentucky become the hat capital of the United States,” she says.
Here’s how she harnesses her creativity and energy to raise her daughter and grow an empire.
You created Forme Millinery first, then had your daughter, Amelia. How has having her changed the way you run your business? “I always thought when I started my own business that my child would come to work with me and it would be wonderful. Well, that worked out for about six months until Amelia was more mobile and didn’t just want to sleep all day.
When that happened and we had to make other arrangements, I missed her terribly. I tend to work very long hours, but after having Amelia, I have since tried to leave the hat shop at a decent hour so I can see her before she goes to bed. It certainly was a challenge in the beginning to figure out how to get things done at the shop and spend quality time with Amelia and my husband Bart.
Does the responsibility of having a child to support make owning your own business scarier? “Believe it or not, it doesn’t. If anything, it makes me work harder, so I can provide Amelia with wonderful opportunities. It really has taught me to be more creative and think of other ways to bring in income through my hats. Hence, my latest collaborations with Vineyard Vines, Covet Fashion and American Express. Failure is not an option for me, so I just keep looking ahead at what I can do next.”
Does having your own business make it easier to spend time with your daughter? “Absolutely. What’s great about owning your own business is that you get to create your own hours. I have a retail hat shop with daily hours, but if I need to leave early one day, or if I want to take an extra-long weekend to spend with the family, I do it. I also open my store at noon, so I can spend time in the mornings with Amelia.”
How do you balance both worlds? “I really try to keep work at work and be engaged during family time. In the past, I use to bring work home and have since stopped. I have come to realize that when I am at home, it is Amelia and my husband’s time and they deserve a hundred percent of my attention. It was a bit difficult in the beginning, but you learn to prioritize better at work and be more productive.”
What advice do you have for other mothers considering starting their own businesses? You can do it! It’s never too late to start your own business. If you’re passionate about something, then follow your heart. Take that leap! Starting your business can have challenges, but also know, you cannot do it all. Maybe in the beginning you have to (I certainly did), but as you grow, hire experts in the areas of the business in which you could use help-- for instance, in accounting or marketing. This will allow you to shine in your areas of strength.
One thing most artists who want to make a living doing what they love don’t realize is that it takes about eighty percent of your time to run your business and twenty percent of your time to actually do your art. If no one knows you exist, how do you plan on selling what you do? Marketing is top on my list every day to keep customers and hat lovers engaged in what I am doing. I have found this to be essential to staying competitive and exposing my business to new clients.
What do you hope your daughter learns from watching you grow your business? “I want Amelia to know she can do anything! She can be her own boss and start a business from the beginning and grow it into a successful profession. I can see that she has a creative side and I want to support that and help grow those areas of interest. A few things I hope she learns from me: Being a disciplined and organized person is essential to being productive on a daily basis. Customer service is always important. Treat everyone that comes through your door with respect and kindness. Always be grateful for the opportunities and relationships you have and never take them for granted. Quality over quantity. If you produce great work, you will create repeat business. Be true to yourself and your work, don’t forget why you wanted to become your own boss. As long as you are passionate about what you do and work really hard, the reward will follow.”<