A Chat with NYC Paper Towel Milliner- Debra Rapoport


It wasn’t long ago when I first read about Debra Rapoport- a milliner who’s design aesthetic isn’t what you would call “average.” She was [and is still being] featured on Advanced Style for her incredibly unique style in her advanced age. She designs her own hats and accessories out of recycled items such as toilet paper rolls, stainless steel scouring pads and most importantly- paper towels. It was such a humbling experience to sit down with her over tea as she discussed growing up in a creative family, how she got into Advanced Style and life in general. But did I mention HER AMAZING HATS !?!?!

Ever since she was three, Debra has always dressed up. She recalls her sister and her never owning dolls, but instead turning to playing dress-up. You see, creativity was always encouraged in her family (especially by her Mother and Grandmother). When she was staying at her Grandparents one time, the siblings took the button drawer out of the sewing machine, dumped it on living room floor and started playing around with them. She remembered her Grandpa saying, “Oh my God, they are making a mess!” Her Grandma then replied, “Be quiet, they are being creative.” Debra has always grown being allowed to wear whatever she wanted and with an attitude that “There’s no such thing as making a mess, it’s all about creativity. Where there’s creativity, there are no rules. Where there are no rules, there is no fear.”

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She majored in textile design at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. She then went on to graduate school at UC Berkley, where her graduate work pertained to textiles relating to the body. She was weaving and building constructions off the loom. Every time she finished a piece, she would want to change it to work for the body, because a flat rectangle didn’t work. She created a few elaborate knitted wearable pieces for her graduate dissertation. This was also when the term ‘wearable art’ didn’t exist yet (late 60s). Currently, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts own some of her work.

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It was a little over five years ago when she was featured on Advanced Style. She recollected that it was 2009 and Ari Seth Cohen was managing the bookstore at the New Museum. She came in on a rainy day and checked her raincoat. She had pink hair then. He ran up to her and said, “I have a blog of women over 60. Can I take your photograph?” He had forgotten his camera, but borrowed a friend’s iPhone. She gave him her card and invited him over.”I’ll dress up, I’ll undress and I’ll even make ya lunch.” Which seemed to frighten him. Five days later, she called him and invited him over for lunch. He photographed everything in her apartment, from the artwork to her cooking. She also changed outfits a number times. They became fast friends and she coined him as her ‘adopted son.’ A few weeks later, he met the film director Lina Plioplyte. Lina wanted to collaborate in creating an Advanced Style film.

Over the years, Ari and the women whom he has photographed became a family. Debra met quite a few young artistic people and friends of Ari’s. “I think it’s important to mix the ages. The young people I have met are not ageist… They aren’t put off by someone who is 70, 80 or 90. They are enamored and they know there is something they can learn from us and our vitality. It’s been an extraordinary experience, especially with the movie out. Ari has given us a new life.”

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Nowadays, her friends often refer to her as “gifted and thrifted,” as they would also gift her their unwanted clothing. She’ll either wear or alter it to her liking. She’s always made headwear; whether it be a paper bag, handbag or a lampshade. In the early 90s, she made lampshades for a company out of banana fiber that she imported from Costa Rica. “To me, a lampshade is a hat, a hat a lampshade..” She was also in the flower business for sixteen years, so she collected vases as well. “A vase is a lampshade…They are all vessels..”

When designing a hat, she starts by working directly on her head. She doesn’t work from maquettes or drawings. She started familiar materials like banana fiber that she had worked with to make lampshades. “I love wearing hats and playing with hair. Because hair is like a sculpture. You can cut it. You can let it grow. I used to have it pink. I like to have it pulled out of a hat, as many of my hats have open tops, so it becomes an additional embellishment and texture. Life is about texture. I cook and I eat by texture and color. I dress by color and texture and layering…”

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She goes on to show me some of the cuffs and bracelets she’s crafted. She had been recycling and would see toilet tissue rolls in the trash. “They are such a valuable piece of cardboard and the shape is fabulous. I slit it up the middle and it makes a beautiful large cuff. I get so many beautiful pieces of graphics in the mail, like a postcard or catalogs from art galleries. I use them to upholster the cardboard cuff and turn it into a bracelet. I add other bits of fabric or ribbon and then I cover them in mesh that I get from sweet potato or lemon bags. I would also often embellish them with what I call my ‘gems’…shredded paper that I’ve bound and wrapped in thread; creating a large, 3-dimensional gem on top of it. People stop me on the street as they think it’s from another ethnic culture. They take on a whole other life. I think that’s what happens when you combine a lot of materials and layer stuff. You don’t read one particular thing, it just becomes a melting of the textures, materials and colors.”

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She’ll either make them into elements and then braid or weave them. She’ll twist or coil them into a bangle and then paint them. Sometimes she would add elements on the surface. “Everything speaks to me, I don’t try to force it into a form. I saw the paper towels one day. It just said ‘cloth’ and ‘do me.’ I just started manipulating. Coming from a textile background, I’m used to manipulating materials, transforming, making elements and then turning it into something; whether it be a basket or garment… So that’s been my whole life and I just keep following what my inner instinct tells me. I think as we grow older we have to do that in whatever form it is, because that’s what’s going to keep us vital.”

Debra described her thoughts on personal style, “Personal style is very healing because creativity comes from within. I love to teach young people that it’s not about what they buy at major stores, but how they put it together as their own personal thing. The things they make. How they embellish themselves and how they can recycle and thrift. And how important that is for the environment and creativity.”

Her hats come in a large variety of unique style. She also does custom pieces upon request. Her wearable art retails from $150- 185. You can contact her through her website: VivaLeHat.com. On why her website is named that, “I’m also encouraging hats to come back and come alive.” VIVA LE HAT!!

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