Thursday, 13 October 2011

Spotlight on Scottish talent: Aka Tombo

When I first saw the lovely hats that Pheigi Sugahara Macdonald makes, I was in awe. Each piece is so original, so elegant and so carefully crafted that it is a pleasure to browse through Aka Tombo, her Etsy shop. Looking through it really makes you wonder why we don’t wear hats more often. They won’t only make you look good but will help the planet out too as Pheigi aims for all of her items to be as eco-friendly as possible. She uses organic and natural materials and low impact methods where she can, and also places an emphasis on upcycling, recycling and vintage or second hand items in her designs. Read her interesting Etsy profile to find out why this is so important.

Pheigi is from the Western Isles of Scotland and although she now lives in Japan, her Scottish roots clearly influence her work with Harris Tweed and Celtic designs making a regular appearance.

We decided to do a little interview with Pheigi to find out a bit more about her and her creations and why she loves hats so much...

When did you first start making hats and how did you learn your craft?

The road to millinery was a long and winding one to be honest. I actually graduated from Napier University in Edinburgh with a degree in Journalism and was greatly interested in alternative and radical media but figured you couldn’t comment on the world without seeing it first so I packed my bags and headed to Japan to teach English. One day I had to teach a class on influential people and I stumbled upon the story of Anita Roddick founder of the Body Shop who, like myself, was disgusted at the way companies manipulated the worlds labour force as well as the environment. By starting the body shop and growing it into a successful company she showed that huge profits can be made following a world friendly business plan with a people first approach. This encouraged me to abandon the idea of writing about the actions of other companies and instead own the company. Easier said than done. I spent two years making organic baby clothes, 100% pure wool baby booties, home accessories, jewellery and touring craft fairs with my very patient husband learning what doesn’t sell in Japan, which is basically everything listed above. I had made a few knitted hats and some feather hair accessories and one day started playing about with felt which ended up being a rather funky black pillbox hat. After that I was hooked and decided to stop making lots of little things and focus all my attention on hats. That was in December 2010 and I have spent this year teaching myself millinery through the internet, books but mostly experimenting. I did a short course in London with Rose Cory, milliner to the Queen Mother, which taught me some tricks of the trade and the basics and I have built on that to create the collection I currently have on sale in my etsy shop.

What was it that drew you to millinery in the first place?

I love hats. Looking back through my old photos it is easy to see that my life was split into sections by my hats, all be it mostly ugly hats. There was my black Tasmanian devil cap phase, my woolly peace hat phase, my beret phase, my top hat phase...the list goes on.
I also like to think that I am quite a creative person but I am totally rubbish at art as my high school art teacher will attest. I was always really frustrated that I could imagine what I wanted to draw but when pen came to paper I was incapable of drawing a straight line or understanding perspective. Millinery is more like sculpture. You start with a bare shape for a base and match fabrics, manipulate feathers or flowers, hunt for antique trinkets to add sparkle making everything very hands on. I feel more like a florist; the beauty is already there I am just arranging it in a new interesting way.  

What inspires you?

Everything inspires me which makes it very hard to concentrate on one thing at a time. I typically have three hats in different stages of completeness at one time. I walk through the 100yen store picking up salad bowls and putting them on my head to see if it would make an interesting shape. Most of my work relies on the beauty of the fabrics which is usually kimono silk and Harris tweed thus finding a balance between the weight of the fabric and the delicate nature of hats is always fun and just playing with fabric, feathers, wool etc. and understanding how they can move and hold shape always amazes me.

How does living in Japan affect what you do?

People in Japan wear hats all the time. They are a great casual hat population and both men and women sport boaters, fedoras and sun hats daily. They don’t however wear fancy hats and weddings are completely hatless. I think living here has shown me that there really is a hat for all occasions even if that occasion is going to the supermarket and that is something I would love to bring home to the UK. Paradoxically I am determined to bring the fancy hat to Japan.

Who is your favourite hat-wearing celebrity?

Dita Von Teese. I love her chic oldskool style and she knows that an outfit is never complete without a hat. Apparently her house has a hat room. People like Isabella Blow and Lady Gaga are great to keep milliners entertained but Dita keeps milliners in business and take us all back to the days where a lady wouldn’t leave the house without her hat and gloves. She once said:

"I also used clothes as a way to counteract my extreme shyness when I was younger. I wore a lot of extravagant vintage hats, which can make people somewhat intimidated. I think people will only approach if they have something very, very interesting to say to the girl in the outrageous hat!"

Where would you like to be in ten years?

Honestly I would love to be back in Glasgow. My sister used to live in Pollokshaws and when I visited I would walk past the old Wrangler jeans factories on the way into town. Glasgow has so much young talent and a really strong history of successful industry that has been allowed to fall apart giving Glasgow the highest unemployment rate in Scotland. I would love to grow Aka Tombo into a full blown fashion label and breathe new life into the old Glasgow factories and bring employment to the area. Might take me a bit longer than 10 years though?

For those of you in Scotland, Pheigi will be selling her hats at the “Granny would be proud” vintage and craft fair in Glasgow on 13th November from 12pm – 5pm at the Hillhead Bookclub. If you can’t make it to that, keep up-to-date with Pheigi by following her interesting blog...all about hats of course!

We would like to wish Pheigi all the best for her future projects and thank her for taking the time to answer our questions.



  1. These are absolutely gorgeous - perfect for weddings . I will be checking out her etsy store.

    Great post Carla! xxx

  2. Thanks Kat! Glad you liked the post and the hats :) You are one of the privileged few that can easily get to Pheigi's stall at the Granny Would be Proud Fair on 13th November too!

  3. these are adorable - I am always in awe of clever people with clever skills -
    I can't even knit :O)
    Happy Friday,

  4. Thanks Anya! Yes, Pheigi is clearly very talented and I'm sure you must have some hidden talents too - even if knitting isn't one of them ;) Have a great weekend.

  5. ¡Me ha encantado la entrevista! Muy interesante, aunque no me acabo yo de ver con una de sus creaciones :-) ¡¡Besos!! Marta

  6. Grazie Marta :) Venga anĂ­mate que seguro que te quedan muy bien!


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