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Artisans of Michigan: Hats from Hollywood to Highland Park

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A hat made by Celeste Couture. Celeste Smith also made the clothing.

The next stop in our Artisans of Michigan series is on a residential street in Highland Park, a city that’s within the City of Detroit.

Celeste Smith is using a small hammer to tack down fabric that’s been soaked in a stiffening agent. She’s making a hat. A fancy one for ladies planning to attend a big hat-wearing event.

“I’m getting ready for the Derby,” she says. Smith has been up all night to keep up with demand. “They’re having the Detroit Derby Day here and I also have some clients going to Louisville,” she said. Big fancy hats are a tradition at the Kentucky Derby.

She owns Celeste Couture Hats. Smith says the Kentucky Derby is always a busy time. Since she moved her business from Los Angeles to Highland Park, she’s been able to stay pretty busy. She’s not making hats for costumes in movies any more. She has a different clientele, but she’s learning who’s likely to be interested.

“The church women, they will spend a little bit more and they like elaborate hats,” she explained.

Celeste Smith says she started out making bridal veils. Then she started working with Hollywood costume designer Rita Riggs.

“My business started taking off and I started working with Rita, making hats for her. And I loved working in the film industry. Seeing the work going across the screen and then also seeing your name in the credits was kind of like, ‘Wow. Did I do that?’  That was fun,” she laughs.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Celeste Smith wearing one of her creations.

She even had time to study millinery in Europe for a year.

But then her mom got sick. She came back to Highland Park to care for her. After her mom passed away instead of moving back to LA, she decided to stay. In part it was because of the kids who live nearby.

“And the kids just love me. When they see me they say ‘Ms. Celeste!’ I always say call me Ms. Celeste. And they come in here and they want to see what I’m doing,” Smith said. She’s taught them how to make things, such as purses from old denim.  They always seem enthusiastic, hungry to learn.

So, she called Rita Riggs in Los Angeles.

“I said I’m not going to come back just yet. I said I think there’s something here. I want to see.  I want to work with it and see,” she said.

So, it’s Celeste Couture Hats in Highland Park for the time being, our latest Artisan of Michigan.

Artisans of Michigan is produced in partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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