In its inaugural year, the country’s newest national racewear fashion final — the Ned Prix de Fashion — had racing and fashion fans flocking to Ellerslie Racecourse for the Vodafone Derby Day last weekend. Fashionistas were competing to take home the title of best dressed, and an enviable prize pack that included a Trelise Cooper VIP shopping experience.

Award-winning milliner to the stars, Jill Humphries, was one of the Ned Prix de Fashion judges. We spoke to the Kiwi-born (but Australia-based) designer of Jill & Jack about what she was looking for on the day, as well as her tips for aspiring miliary designers.

What do you look for in a winning race day fashion look?

An interesting design element and an understanding of how to put a look together. Some people can have an amazing look, but if it’s not weather appropriate, and she is freezing in the name of fashion, there is nothing more off-putting.

Tell us about the look of Aleisha Mitchell, winner of the Ned Prix de Fashion.

I picked Aleisha as a winning contender of the Ned Prix de Fashion within minutes of entering the racecourse. She had an effortless style and fully embraced it. I also looked for someone who I believed could represent New Zealand with personality and a style of their own — which Aleisha absolutely nailed.

The Ned Prix de Fashion winner Aleisha Mitchell.

How is racewear in New Zealand unique? How does it compare to Australia? Would you like to see more Kiwis making the trip to Australia to compete?

I would love to see more Kiwis competing in Australia. Like I mentioned earlier if someone would take a risk and look at what is unique in NZ fashion and take it to the fashion stage I think it could be breathtaking.

Does millinery have a place outside of racewear? How can women incorporate a headpiece into other occasions?

There are so many places to wear millinery these days from a classic fedora on the weekend, a boater for the polo, massive straw hats for holidays and romantic headbands for weddings and events. I love nothing more than seeing a woman wearing jeans, boots, a white shirt and a fedora though.

Do you have a favourite race day?

I have many! I always go to the Caulfield Cup with my husband — I enjoy the track there and find it a great day of racing before Flemington begins. Melbourne Cup is incredible to be involved in; the sheer number of people who just stop everything and tune in to the race is mesmerising. But I do have to say my favourite is the Boxing Day races at Ellerslie — I love that it is a great day of racing, the weather is usually brilliant and that it is so family focused.

You are a Kiwi taking on the world stage. How hard was it to establish yourself?

It was a little tricky at first as it is a very niche market. However, saying that my background in marketing helped a lot and as an early adapter of social media I built a large footprint in the millinery scene very quickly.

I also tried to do things that no one else was doing, like my leather floral work. Suddenly, I was taking orders from around the world which was amazing. An opportunity came up for me to enter an international millinery competition for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I decided to enter with my leatherwork and then kind of forgot about it. Next thing I knew messages on my phone and email were going crazy and it was announced I got runner up, and it pushed me even further into the international market.

What inspired you to take that first step?

I organised an event around the Melbourne Cup and just loved all the hats and the tradition around the millinery. Within a couple of days, I saw a course advertised to learn millinery and signed up. I studied for a couple of years in the evenings and then decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a go.

The Ned Prix de Fashion winner Aleisha Mitchell and Hawaiian Airlines Menswear Award winner John Morrow.

What are some of your career highlights?

Winning the Myer Millinery Award on Oaks day at Flemington was phenomenal. I entered with the attitude that if I got an awesome photo of my entry that would be a fabulous result. Next thing I was the first New Zealander to win the prestigious award and pushed up on stage in front of hundreds of peers while blinking back the tears. I don’t remember much else, except I then stayed up for hours with my gorgeous husband and several bottles of champagne.

Another highlight was moving into my new Atelier in Melbourne. While so many small businesses are closing doors, mine keep getting bigger and bigger and I now have a beautiful space to create hats in and people are loving it. There has been a massive shift back to handmade and bespoke millinery – and it is now a fabulous full time business for me, especially after being picked up by David Jones.

Who is your favourite milliner?

Hands down Stephen Jones — he is not just an inspiration to myself and many others, but a genuine and gorgeous man.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to follow a similar path?

1. Immerse yourself in the history of millinery. I have a never-expanding library within the Atelier that includes many fashion and millinery books but also horticulture, art gallery guides, photography, artists, jewellers, vintage fashion, magazines, sewing manuals and more. Sometimes a picture within a book that is 60-years-old can inspire you with a new range.

2. Take your time developing your brand – it will be worth it in the end.

3. Look for inspiration everywhere. I have made hats based on leaves that I have picked up while walking, or chosen a colour palette from a flower.

If you could pick one person to wear your millinery, who would it be?

Any woman that has a smile on her face, confidence to match, a killer attitude, and knows she looks amazing in her hat.

What are your favourite places to shop/eat/visit when you come home to Auckland?

Everywhere! Usually, our first port of call is the Belgian Beer Cafe for pots of New Zealand Mussels. Then I hit the seafood markets to stock up on Bluff Oysters if they are in season — I seriously could eat dozens of them. My bestie Jody usually fills in the latest dining spots for me and we go from Parnell to Ponsonby eating and shopping.

Fashion-wise, I love that Newmarket is having a well overdue makeover and I am looking forward to visiting the new David Jones store. I always find gorgeous shops around Nuffield street and Teed Street and a few of my favourite galleries are nestled amongst.

The Ned Prix de Fashion finalists and judges (L to R) Kate Cavanagh, Tracey Dalton, Alexandra Jones, Murray Bevan, Carle Rutledge, Aleisha Mitchell, Jill Humphries, Katie Owles, Sarah Stuart, Olivia Moor, Carena West and Hannah Marinkovich.

Where do you see the Jill & Jack brand going in the next five years?

I am looking into a men’s range which is exciting. Other than that I just hope that people keep loving my work and I get to keep doing what I love.

No successful career is without times of trial. What is one of the greatest challenges you faced and how did you overcome it?

One of the greatest challenges was deciding to give up a full time career and give millinery a go. Throwing in the towel and going in to the unknown was daunting, but my gorgeous husband encouraged me all the way. We don’t have any other family in Melbourne, so it meant we were out on our own and taking a risk with a young family. But now I can’t imagine doing anything else and love him so much for all his encouragement and support.

Congratulations to the Ned Prix de Fashion winner, Aleisha Mitchell. View more images of the winners and judges in the gallery above.

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