“I was the little girl always in mum’s wardrobe,” she grins with an infectious sparkle in her eye. “I loved to dress up…the outfits, the accessories and the quintessential wobbling around in the oversized high heels.”  With a self-confessed weakness for classic style and a love of old world glamour, Holly Bowden never guessed her childhood dreams would define her future success.

Fast forward twenty years and this whirlwind of gracious energy has blossomed into an icon of local Hobart style. Holly has crafted the luxury Tasmanian label Epitome Hats, taking the world by storm with her original designs hand stitched from superfine Australian merino felted wool.

Moving from Perth to Tasmania at around age 10, Holly vividly recalls the excitement that came with relocating to somewhere she’d never heard of. “I remember it well,” she smiles. “I had no idea at all where Tasmania was. To make things more interesting, my teacher at the time was reading the class a book about a bus being driven along the edge of a rugged cliff. She turned to me and said, ‘It will be just like that in Tasmania, Holly.’ I think my eyes must have been as wide as dinner plates. The move for me was one big adventure into the unknown, with the added bonus of missing a bit of school while we found our feet.”

It took a little while for the family to settle in Hobart. “We went back to Perth a couple of times, like when my grandfather passed away, so for a while we were known as the yo-yo family and I didn’t really know which state to call home. That’s firmly changed now of course. I definitely think of Tassie as home. It’s where my heart is.”

Picking up the story, Holly grins sheepishly, “I’ve always been in mum’s clothes. I pretty much lived in her wardrobe 24/7 and grabbed any excuse to dress up. Growing up I was always flipping through magazines and experimenting with new looks. It’s an obsession that’s always been there.”

Holly explains how her innate sense of style runs in the family. “My grandmother was a milliner, she was quite renowned in Western Australia, and had an amazing range of hats. I always admired how a hat could really define an outfit and turn a few simple items of clothing into something special. A hat can really make a statement. It’s part of what I really love about them…they really top things off nicely and bring everything together. Today we are all so casual, so it’s nice to add a hat to dress things up.”

“I’ve certainly noticed that a hat attracts attention. I’m forever getting comments on mine when I’m out and about. I’d love to see more people wearing them, not just as a style piece, but for the sun protection they provide. It’s critical here in Tassie.”

For Holly, the decision to chase a dream as a milliner herself was born not just out of fashion, but also of practicality. “For many years I really struggled to find myself a hat I loved…something I could wear to protect my skin but that also looked good with a range of different outfits. We’ve had a few instances of melanoma in my family so I’ve always been very conscious of the need for sun protection, especially here in Tasmania where we have to be so aware of the UV index.”

“Finally, after a long search, I found a versatile hat that I liked,” explains Holly. “The number of compliments I received whilst wearing it really surprised me and I quickly worked out that I wasn’t alone – a good hat was indeed hard to find. To me it seemed clear that there was a niche market there waiting to be tapped. People were yearning for good sized brims, a flattering shape and something made from quality materials.”

“Growing up under the wing of mum and dad’s business, Smitten Merino, I was lucky enough to have the freedom to explore design and fashion,” explains Holly. “Smitten certainly gave me a head start in the fashion industry and I guess I grasped that with both hands and wanted to build something for myself too. One of the things I love about Tassie is the opportunity it provides. If you’re willing to give things a go, the community really get behind you. It’s easier to stand out here than in a larger city, and that’s something that’s all too often overlooked.”

On a mission to help others not only look stylish, but protect their skin at the same time, Holly set about learning the craft of millinery. “I knew I needed to learn how to make a hat similar to the one I had found. Thanks to mum and dad, I already understood the unique value of wool, so it seemed only natural to take advantage of its exceptional properties. Being squashable, 100% UV block out, travel friendly and waterproof, it was a no brainer that it would be the material of choice for my hats.”

Explaining how she pulled apart that first hat in order to learn the ropes, Holly laughs, “That first one was an absolute nightmare! By the end of it my fingers were covered in needle pricks and smothered in glue. I ended up spending some time in Melbourne to learn the craft of millinery and really valued my time there with a great mentor. I loved learning from her, and really love the art of millinery itself.”

With her production process streamlined, Holly took up a stall at Hobart’s renowned Salamanca Market. “That was the best thing I ever did,” she nods enthusiastically. “To begin with I went under the name Holly Mason Hats, and it was amazing how quickly things grew. Being at Salamanca each week really allowed me to connect with the market and get first hand feedback from my customers. I really valued that and helped me respond quickly to what people were searching for. As a result, I expanded the size of my brims to offer even more sun protection.”

With life throwing a curve ball in 2015, Holly placed her passion on the backburner to stand by her mother’s side during a period of illness. “When mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, nothing else mattered to me. I just wanted to be with her – that was far more important than anything else. I threw everything in and for a while there I just spent my days with her and we did what needed to be done to get her well again. Something like that really makes you stop and reassess what’s important.”

Thankfully, Nicola made a full recovery. “In some ways that episode further strengthened my passion to provide a product that has a health benefit. I’m really big on educating others to protect their skin and these hats offer a way to do it with real style. It’s important to me that I’m selling something that has meaning behind it. It’s not solely about the fashion.”

With Nicola back on deck, meeting husband Jaye was the impetus Holly needed to resurrect her business. “Jaye has been a great support to me and backs the business 100%. He really encouraged me to pick it back up again and give it a real go. Jaye takes the load of the paperwork with his amazing business skills but will also chip in wherever he can, even getting into the stitching and gluing. It’s a real joint effort.”

Relaunching under the name Epitome Hats in 2016, Holly explains, “We always wanted these hats to be the best, so I guess we chose the name to reflect that,” she giggles. “Sometimes I doubt we picked the best name though, so many people have trouble pronouncing it…it can be a real issue and it’s a little awkward correcting customers all the time, so I often just have to let it fly. Hopefully one day it will just become one of the cool high end brand names!”

Today, each individual hat in the range remains hand finished by Holly herself. “I still hand stitch them all, and also fit the inner and outer bands. I love the creative process and can’t envisage a time where I won’t be hands on.”

“I still go to Salamanca Market each Saturday morning, although now I represent both Smitten Merino and Epitome Hats,” says Holly. “That contact with customers is really important to me and continues to enable me to respond rapidly to the market. You couldn’t get better product testing. I can take a few comments like ‘I wish that one came in black,’ and adjust my offering really quickly to suit trends. I like that agility in business – the benefits are immediate and the risks are minimal.”

“I‘d describe most of my designs as classics,” says Holly thoughtfully. “I derive a lot of inspiration from styles that were popular fifty or sixty years ago, but I also give a lot of thought to what would complete my own outfits. I’m always researching and flicking through magazines and Pinterest. The ‘Audrey’ is one of my biggest sellers and, as the name suggests, is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s classic style. That’s never going to go out of fashion and it’s a hat that can go with pretty much anything.”

Describing herself as a ‘novice marketer’ Holly chatters, “I do everything myself. I built the website, manage the social media, design new products, pack the orders, and man the Salamanca stall. I love being hands on…yeah, I just love working I guess.” She goes on to comment on the brand’s significant presence on Instagram, “Influencers on social media have been amazing. Occasionally I’ll be lucky enough to have someone with a high profile don one of my designs and the reaction I see after that is incredible. They have so much power in the fashion world.”

“I’m a self-confessed accessory nut,” she laughs. “I love having one great piece of clothing, but dressing it up with a few key things…a bag, belt, sunglasses and hat. Those four items, and your outfit is made.”

Online sales are an important channel for the Epitome brand. Holly explains, “We continue to receive a lot of interest from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. A lot of women comment on the value of the broad brims for sun protection and echo my own sentiments about being able to dress practically but with style. It’s not just Tasmanians who value the same things that I do.”

“Epitome Hats now offers 16 different styles. It’s a boutique selection and our focus remains on luxury, quality, classic designs and a range of sizing options. We’re also passionate about providing local employment opportunities as we grow.” She laughs as she admits, “One of my downfalls is remaining focussed as there’s so much I’d like to try. This year has really about consolidating the business and firming up a solid plan for the future…as the saying goes, working on the business rather than in the business.”

“I’ve been lucky to have mum and dad to bounce ideas off and to learn through my involvement in Smitten. We collaborate a lot and there is obvious benefit to be able to share suppliers and contacts in the wool industry. Both brands complement each other and we often have my hats in Smitten photo shoots to top off the outfits. Working with mum also satisfies any desire I may have to branch into other garments…if I come up with a great design for pj’s I can pass it on to her and just remain focussed on my core business.”

“I just hope that for many, Epitome Hats provides the perfect hat. I want my products to join in on life’s adventures, and be there to enhance an individual’s own statement style. Knowing that we’re helping to keep people safe in the sun is a sweet bonus.”

Check out what all the fuss is about on Instagram and Facebook. Grab your own slice of style via the Epitome Hats website.