A hatbox of beauty, joy and healing: Meet Lali Heath, Kenya’s own couture milliner

Through her stunning creations, Lali Heath is bringing her lucky customers the smile and self-confidence that comes from crowning your look with a beautiful, impeccably crafted hat. And Lali herself is experiencing the power of handcraft to calm a distressed mind.

I caught up with Lali, exhibiting under her label, Lali Heath Millinery, at a Christmas craft fair in Nairobi last December.

Perched hat with silk lilies. By Lali Heath Millinery. Photo by Lali Heath
Perched hat with silk lilies. By Lali Heath Millinery. Photo by Lali Heath

“Kate’s worn that shape,” said Lali airily, pointing to a fuchsia and oyster perched hat, as I frantically tried to figure out which Kate it was that we were talking about.

Turns out it’s that Kate.

“And this is what I call the Chelsea hat,” continued Lali, pointing to a soft, wide-brimmed tan felt hat with a burgundy bow and just the right amount of flop.

“Chelsea Clinton? “ I scrambled.


“Everyone in Chelsea (London) is wearing one this season,” laughed Lali.

It all started four years ago when with Lali, a third generation Kenyan of British descent, signed up for a millinery workshop offered by couture milliner Jane Corbett, whose clients have included the British Royalty. This short course in Corbett’s UK studio sparked Lali’s interest in the art of millinery, and she ended up doing a full apprenticeship under Corbett. It was during this apprenticeship that Lali acquired Jane’s handmade block (what a hat is shaped on) for the percher hat design, which Corbett had used to make hats for HRH the Duchess of Cambridge.

So there you have it…the connection between a Kenyan milliner with the House of Windsor.

Back to Lali’s beautiful, handcrafted hats.

Unique, handmade luxury

Colourful or neutral, restrained or exuberant, sassy or demure, a Lali hat sit on your head like it was measured for you. A joyful confluence of fabric, colour and design, these hats feel as luxurious as they look. They have that je ne sais quoi that arises when god-given talent meets world-class training…that desirability found in handcrafted luxury items.

Handmade flowers on Lali’s hats. Left, Cherry, Right, poppy. Photos by Lali Heath

All of them are one-of-a-kind, meaning that you are never in any danger of turning up to that special occasion and finding someone else sporting your head-turner. This is because Lali makes every one of them by hand, varying colour, shape and fabric, so no two are the same.

The element of fun and whimsy is ever present in a Lali hat— a puff of snow-white antique lace atop a little fuchsia pillbox; another pillbox—ivory this time—covered in masses of sequins and a sweeping low bow; a black Jackie O-sqe number adorned ‘just so’ with black and white silk feathers.

The bows with the Wow factor! Lali Heath hats. Photos by Lali Heath
The bows with the Wow factor! Lali Heath hats. Photos by Lali Heath

Lali sources her materials (felts, straws and silks, sequins and the like) from specialist millinery suppliers in the UK. But the roses and lilies that you’ll find trimming some her hats, Lali creates by hand, all by herself.

And like every good creative, she is an avid collector of haberdashery and odds and ends from East Africa and her travels around the world, finding design inspiration from “amazing materials, vintage images and current fashion.” The close contact she maintains with Jane Corbett and fellow milliners also keeps Lali’s creative fire burning, and she is finding more and more freedom and confidence in the creative process with every year that passes.

“I am lucky to have had an incredible mentor and friend in Jane Corbett, and I continue to get inspiration from some of my milliner friends in the UK,” she says.

Lali Heath, with a selection of her hats at a crafts fair in Nairobi, November 2015. Photo by Daisy Ouya

Although Lali is named after the Lali Hills around Tsavo in Kenya (her name means ‘the tall one’), she is petite, at just 5’ 4”, and soft-spoken. Her melodious voice reminds me of wind chimes in a gentle breeze.

A nature lover, she currently lives and works surrounded by nature at the foothills of Mt Kilimanjaro in Northern Tanzania, where she and her husband own an Avocado farm.

Currently Lali outlets her hats only at shows and fashion pop-ups in the region. Ranging from around $200-$1000 her stunning creations are developing a loyal clientele among discerning East Africans, typically women looking for the perfect hat to top off the perfect outfit.

The ultimate cool

In Kenya, the region and around the world, the popularity of hats is on the upswing. From Pharell Williams to Rihanna to hip hop artists and politicians, it seems a hat, nowadays, is de rigueur for the ultimate cool. This popularity has rekindled a new interest in hat-making, and more and more young people are entering the millinery profession.

Does a specialist milliners like her feel a competition pressure from imports that cost under $20 in the streets of Nairobi, I am curious. “It’s two very different markets… So not really,” Lali clarifies thoughtfully.

At any rate, Lali says she would like in the near future, to focus on more casual and wearable everyday hats, as well continuing her couture range of specialist hats.

Meditative Handwork

Besides a viable business, the art and craft of millinery has brought Lali healing from a debilitating condition. For most of her adult life she suffered from clinical depression, and was hospitalized numerous times. But when Lali entered the world of designing hats and working with her hands, joy, peace and healing followed.

“The sewing is incredibly therapeutic,” Lali told me.

“Making hats has changed my life and since I have been doing it I have not been hospitalized once! Literally, a life-changing move!”

In her bestselling book Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach devotes a chapter to the topic of ‘Meditative Handwork,’ calling it “one of the best methods to induce a meditative state… because when our hands are busy, our minds can rest… bringing relief from tension.”

As Lali has found, and as Breathnach continues in the chapter, “The next time the fabric of real life seems to unravel before your eyes, get busy with your hands, so you mind can serenely sort out where to pick out the next stitch.”

And I promise you can sense this serenity and as soon as you pop on a beautiful Lali Heath hat!

Visit Lali Heath’s website: http://www.laliheathmillinery.com
Her in-house studio is on Kifufu Estate, Tanzania. Appointments can be made to view hats.

Lali’s blog with vegan recipes at: www.enchantedveggiegarden.blogspot.com

Enjoy a selection of Lali’s creations!



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