Her avant-garde headwear is much in demand across the world, but she has no formal training as a milliner. Catherine Scott meets Bink. Main pictures by Ellie Victoria Gale.
Her eccentric and wacky creations are worn by the rich and famous across the globe from weddings to Ascot and even the Queen’s garden parties.
But Bink – no surname as it brings back unhappy memories of her childhood in her native South Africa – has no millinery training. In fact, she doesn’t even have an interest in millinery, not at least in a traditional sense, seeing as she is reluctant to play by the rules and as likely to put a skull on one of her hats as she is an oversized rose. Her hats, fascinators and decorative eye patches are as much works of art as they are headwear.
“There is a story in my work, a sort of yin yang or balance that I like to bring to each creation,” says Bink. “Everywhere I go I am looking at everything with one thought: can I put that on my head? I’m obsessively driven to create, it’s like breathing and any time spent away from my studio needs to be justified and as much fun as being in my studio.”
Bink’s studio, and the nerve centre of her business, Pearls and Swine, is in the basement of her rather ordinary looking house on a no through road in Dewsbury. But once in the door you are immediately confronted by an entirely different world, as surreal as most of Bink’s creations.
It is an Aladdin’s cave of unusual collections amassed by Bink and her partner Trafford Parsons over years of trawling car boot sales, charity shops and auctions. They are collectors in the true sense of the word, as scores of pumpkin-themed figures and a wall full of “Blue Lady” paintings attest. Garlands of fake flowers hang from the ceiling and walls which are also stuffed with Bink’s customised paintings. There isn’t a millimetre that isn’t crammed with something bright, gaudy and kitsch.
It is all very much reflective of Bink’s personality. She talks at 100 miles an hour, jumping from one subject to another. She admits she loves “all things gaudy, bright, sparkly, fun, dark or ugly,” and that is also reflected in the material she uses for her headwear.
“I just love colour,” she says. “I think it is coming from South Africa where the sun shines – I just want to bring a bit of sunshine to Dewsbury.”
Bink moved to the UK from the Cape in 1996. “I thought I was coming on a two-year work visa but then I ended up staying.”
Although she had been a creative – sewing and printing T-shirts – it never occurred to her that she could make a career out of it. “I didn’t want to be creative back then, I wanted to be sensible, to earn money and have security. It took me until my 30th year to realise I was wrong. When I came to the UK as many South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders did in the 90s before they stopped it, I had no qualifications. My parents were very religious and didn’t believe in formal education,” explains the 40-year-old.
“I started doing care work in South Africa as I really didn’t know what I wanted to do until I turned 30. So when I came to London I worked as a carer looking after the elderly and terminally ill.”
Bink’s unusual upbringing and the effect of her parents’ religious fervour can be seen in much of her work as well as in the smallest room in her house. Her downstairs cloakroom is something of a religious shrine stuffed with religious artefacts, icons and deities – even on the toilet seat.
“I have a love hate relationship with religion,” she says. It was while working for a terminally ill woman in London that Bink had a creative epiphany. “She was only in her 40s and for some reason I decided to knit her a scarf. And that was the beginning. I realised that I wanted to be a creative. Funnily enough I have never knitted a scarf since – I am not a very good knitter really. But it made me realise what I wanted to do.”
She started experimenting with making hats. “I made a small top hat first and stretched velvet over it,” she explains. “I set up a Facebook page to sell my hats and for a few years I kept up being a carer until my hats really started to sell.” She now has more than 20,000 followers on Facebook.
Bink met Trafford eight years ago at a London club. They moved to Dewsbury to allow them to have space for Bink’s studio. “I needed the space to create,” she says. Trafford is working on the network of Victorian tunnels underneath Bradford which is being turned into the Sunbridge Wells development that will include shops and bars as well as an art gallery. Bink and Trafford are true supporters of the “shop local” ethos, using local suppliers where possible and even sending all their hats across the globe from the small post office around the corner.
“I always find it strange that we stand in the queue at our local post office in Dewsbury and send Bink’s hats all over the world,” says Trafford.
“I use a local photographer – I have more than 3,000 images of my designs from photo shoots – I use local models and try to buy as many of my materials locally,” says Bink. “We are in the home of textiles after all.”
Bink now has two ranges, Temptress of Waikiki being her more mainstream collection while Pearls and Swine is what she calls her “pop surreal millinery”.
“I don’t follow fashion, I don’t follow other milliners, I don’t buy magazines, I don’t know or care what is in this season. I play by my own rules,” she says. “I create what I feel, an idea will seed itself in my mind and I bring that idea to life. I have a great love for glitter, it makes my world go round. I am passionate about creating original and unique works so I avoid seeing what others do in the hope of keeping my creative thoughts pure as I don’t see the point in creating what others create.”
Bink does everything free hand and never uses a pattern. It seems there is nothing that she can’t put on a hat – be it a scene from Alice in Wonderland, a range of bingo balls for a commission or the Venus de Milo.
Her prices range from a crazy £4 to more than £300. The only thing she does have to bear in mind is the weight. “At the end of the day people have got to be able to wear it, so 500g is about the heaviest it can be, but it also has to be balanced, in all senses of the word.”
Her studio is crammed full of boxes full of ribbons, glitter, baubles, skulls, cherubs, anything she sees along the way that might come in useful for a creation one day.
She admits that she prefers the design stage of the process. “I easily get bored and really don’t like to have to repeat anything.” That might also explain why, when we meet, she is working on half a dozen designs at the same time, including a range using cats’ whiskers which she plans to auction off for a cat charity when it is complete. “I have cat ladies across the country collecting their cat’s whiskers for me that I can then use in my hats.”
Charity is very much at the heart of Bink’s philosophy. She does no PR or advertising and loathes celebrity endorsement.
“A lot of people say to me why don’t I get celebrities to wear my hats and then I will get loads of publicity. But I really don’t like the whole celebrity culture thing.”
As well as making hats to raise money for charities close to her heart, Binks has special designs for people with disabilities, although that happened quite by accident. “I was attending a charity ball in London and I had an eye infection, there was no way I was going to go without wearing any make-up and so I decided to design special eye patches. Some people have a real need for them, others buy them purely as a fashion accessory
“I got a letter from man whose wife had cancer of the eye and lost her eye. He said my eye patches really helped her. It was incredibly moving.” She has also designed a number of decorative splints.
“It is a hard life making a living as a creative, but it has taken me a long time to realise that it is more important to be true to myself. We lead a simple life and we are happy.”
• To see Bink’s collection go to www.pearlsandswine.com