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The first real hat I ever bought came from a little shop in Paris called Marie Mercié.

It was 1994 and I was to be a bridesmaid at a very chic French wedding where chapeaux would be de rigueur. It was to be my first formal capped event, and I wanted a hat as dramatic as I imagined hats could be. It also needed to be elegant and flattering, yet, naturally, it couldn’t upstage the bride.

At the time in Paris, places like Le Bon Marché carried heaps of boxy pastel hats, but nothing approached the dreamy number I had in mind. The search began: Who makes the chicest hats in Paris? The name whispered back from several of my mother’s in-the-know friends was the “graceful” and “whimsical” Marie Mercié.

Within minutes of entering the shop, I had found it: a classic straw capeline (or wide-brimmed hat), perfectly shaped and balanced and woven so impeccably, it made me wonder how it could share a name with the more banal straw hats I had known before. Its particular extravagance, namely the gigantic size of its brim, was ideally suited to a tall girl like me. I declared it perfect and bought it on the spot.

The day of the nuptials arrived, and thanks to my hat I proudly pranced into the Berry church. And I soon realized, to my horror, that my chapeau did not fit into the narrow pew assigned to me at the front of the church. Letting go of the hat was simply not an option, so I spent the entire agonizingly long ceremony leaning forward, looking as if I were listening very intently to the sermon. Fortunately no one noticed, but I woke up the next morning with a brutally sore neck.

Though inauspicious, this was the start of a great affection for that particular hat and for Marie Mercié’s designs in general. The store itself, now on the Rue St.-Sulpice, on the Left Bank, is charming, of course, with its flowery parakeet wallpaper and tall mushroom-cap stands. But the real reason to go is that there’s something there for everyone—or, at least, as Mercié herself says, “for actresses, writers, bourgeoises, Parisiennes, and countrywomen.” (Well, maybe really chic countrywomen.)

One cold day last spring I drop in with my friend the photographer Michael James O’Brien. Artfully displayed on shelves and stands are Mercié’s latest designs, a colorful assemblage of mock flowers, animals, and insects, with a large selection of classic straw designs grouped together, as if growing on the same tree.

There are variations on what the French call a bibi (a small gaminelike hat), and I am immediately won over by a miniature silver-sequined top hat. Then I try on a small, white-feathered headband, which has a few spiky strands sprouting upward on one side. It feels easy and whimsical. The saleswoman kindly steps in to set it at the right angle on my head; I fight the impulse to buy it right then and there.

There’s a yellow cap on top of which sprouts a large flower with a purple center; a black rose mounted on a red fez; a large spider hat.I’m not convinced by the yellow flower—probably because it adds what I feel are unnecessary inches to my height—and the black rose would look better on an Edouard Manet model.But the spider, with its arachnid legs fanning out mysteriously at eye level, is a perfect mix of humor and glamour.

The true winner, we both decide, is a straw bird-head hat that I try on last, replete with glass eyes and a pointed beak; out of it cascades beautiful, rare striped feathers. Before I even take it off, I find myself drawing upa mental list of possible events to which I could wear it.

Mercié herself, a diminutive redheaded sprite, comes in during our session. We stop our Funny Face routine long enough to discuss the perils of hat wearing today—the period-film, contrived look they sometimes conjure. “I try very hard to make hats that aren’t retro. I fight against that impulse all day long,” Mercié says.

When she began designing hats in 1986, there was no real competition in Paris for modern styles made with traditional techniques. Mercié got her start when a hat collection she’d created for her own use (and produced, thanks to her mother’s modiste) began drawing attention in shops on her visits to London.

Soon she showed the hats to some stylist friends, and in no time her large capelines were featured on the covers of Madame Figaro and French Marie Claire.

“I had always painted and drawn,” says Mercié. “But my parents were very conservative and thought fashion was like prostitution. I stayed clear of it for a long time.”

Today she designs two collections a year, but any hat from past seasons can be made to fit, since Mercié holds on to the wooden molds of every style she has created. (She devised this priceless bit of customer service, she says, after her favorite Yves Saint Laurent trenchcoat was discontinued.) All the hats are produced in her six-person workshop, where two craftsmen are exclusively devoted to straw weaving. One-of-a-kind pieces are also a possibility, as long as they are in keeping with the style of the house. Mercié works best when she is given carte blanche. The result has been a red sisal frog headband for one customer’s wedding anniversary and a snake hat with glass eyes for another.

As for choosing a hat, Mercié doesn’t really offer any advice. “I am against rules,” she explains with her characteristically communicative laugh. “I believe even a short woman can wear a very large hat.”

Hats at Marie Mercié range from $400 to $1,600 (23 Rue St.-Sulpice, Paris; 33-1/43-26-45-83).


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