In the hazy late-night hours, Maria Etkind talks to her hats.
But there’s no “mad hatter” here. Rather, Etkind, a milliner based in New Orleans, knows herself well enough to wait until morning to make a final call about a problematic hat. “We’ll see about you tomorrow,” she’ll say. As she sleeps, the harsh judgment often disappears. She says: “Almost always, in the morning, it’s beautiful again.”
Etkind, a Panama native who immigrated to the United States in 1990, chalks up the success of her business to a confluence of seemingly disparate skills. When her husband’s job took them from NOLA to the Netherlands years ago, she suddenly found herself a “classic expat wife”—minus one full-time graphic design job, plus a language barrier.
She decided she’d use her time overseas to tackle things she’d always wanted to try, including hatmaking. “After I learned to make fedoras in a class, I got interested in other styles,” she says. “I reached out to a hatmaker in the Hague who happened to be a member of the Dutch Hat Association and, as such, published a quarterly magazine called Hatlines. Believe it or not, she needed graphic design help, so for two years, we traded skills: my layout and editorial expertise for her hatmaking instruction.”
Upon returning to the Big Easy, however, Etkind’s first show at a hat expo in Harrah’s Casino flopped. She recalls sheepishly, “All these other women were selling hats. I vividly remember one hatmaker’s table collapsing because she had so many hats to sell, and a huge line of buyers to boot. I didn’t sell a single one.”
But she decided to double down. Her graphic design background gave her the skills to quickly establish a polished online presence, and as she continued to lean into her niche (vintage, high-fashion, handmade, pristine), her business was born in earnest. She now works out of her studio at home, crafting ready-to-wear and custom creations full time.
She says millinery is as cerebral as it is physical, as much in her head as it eventually is upon someone else’s. “I had a teacher once that said, ‘Don’t let the thinking get in the way of the doing.’ Don’t stay in your head creating,” Etkind says. And in Mardi Gras season that advice is particularly useful, as there’s no time to waste.
On the Saturday before Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, the college-aged Queen of Carnival and the eight members of her court are announced. Though the identity of the Queen is kept as the utmost of secrets until that reveal, she and her court have quietly commissioned their wardrobes well in advance.
“The Queen of Carnival always wears white,” Etkind explains, “and the women in her court always wear a specific, pre-designated color.” Their custom-made boucle suits are only part of their looks; a bespoke hat is also an essential piece. “I’ve been lucky enough to design for two queens so far, and I feel very fortunate to be a vendor who gets calls from many of the young women in the court, and from their mothers.” Etkind meets with each client to discuss color and style, pushing the younger set to choose a “fun color that suits their age,” usually in straw or felt. “My goal is to create for all the queens: New Orleans, Mobile, Alabama, and Lafayette, Louisiana.”
On the morning of Mardi Gras, the Queen and her court wave from the balcony of the InterContinental Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. This age-old appearance has allowed Etkind to debut a little Mardi Gras magic of her own: “If I’m fortunate and lots of the young women come to me, I end up creating a makeshift collection that’s seen all together on that balcony. I don’t repeat colors for that reason; in case I have more than one client, I want the pieces to be working together stylistically.”
Although the Queen’s debut may be the most anticipated reveal of the week, it’s certainly not the only excitement. Etkind also designs for female krewes who frequent the French Quarter the Friday before Mardi Gras and usually lean toward a fascinator for “a little piece of flair.” It’s like wearing a sculpture, she says.
Her craft—a balance of precision, creative risk, and hard-earned skill—begins with seeing a client in person and assessing what variables are already in play: Have they selected a dress? How formal is the event? Is the client’s face wide, narrow, long, ovular? Are they a first-time hat wearer or a veteran?
And although hats aren’t necessarily everyday wear for most of us, Etkind argues that they’re the solution to the social media–specific problem of over-visibility. As more and more women plan outfits for upcoming events based on what people have seen before, Etkind submits that a hat is the silver bullet: “You’re allowed to have a little more of a budget to buy a beautiful hat if you wear something you’ve already worn. The hat will transform the look completely anyway.”
As for her own crowning moment? It comes on the morning of Mardi Gras when her phone springs to life with photo after photo of women assembling their completed looks. “As they’re dressing, photos start rolling in that represent so many hours of work—not just mine, but their clothing designers’ as well.” In 2020, the mothers of the court convened for a photo that they then sent to Etkind, a wonderland of color, texture, hand-cut feathers, and perfectly arranged silks. “I was in the French Quarter at a party when I got that message, and I literally started crying in the street,” she remembers. “I work hard to make it happen, but I am living my dream.” And back to her studio she’ll go, to contend with the next batch of visions.