Like many a good superhero origin story, world-class hatmaker Dayna Pinkham traces the moment she flipped from mild-mannered scientist to couture maven to a familiar catalyst: bullying.
While working toward a career in biochemistry at the University of Washington in the 1980s—one of the few women to do so at the time—Pinkham was in the full throes of alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes sufferers to lose their hair. Her male classmates’ teasing and snickering was so constant, it led her to drop out of school. Desperate, she headed to milliner John Eaton’s looking for a way to hide her condition. Instead, the nearly retired designer, a big name in the 1940s known for his glamorous creations and sass, took a liking to Pinkham, offering to teach her how to make her own hats. Nearly four decades later? She’s considered one of the top 21 milliners in the world (according to Couture Hats) and crafts hats for celebs like Serena Williams and Margaret Cho, as well as everyday Portlanders, in her cozy West End atelier.
“All my life I tried to not stick out. Now I throw my shoulders back and walk into a room. I am stronger because of it,” says Pinkham of her alopecia, while she sits in her shop surrounded by cloches, berets, and fedoras. “It gives me a fierceness now. But it took years to get here.”
She apprenticed under Eaton for four years at his amazingly named salon John Eaton’s, Of Course, mastering the rules (“no glue, add whimsy, never put a bow just to put a bow”) and learning how to steam and block felt and straw into hats. Then, she set out on her own, schlepping her wares all over the Northwest for church bazaars, ladies’ nights, and Lions Club fashion shows. In 2000, she set up shop in downtown Portland, quickly becoming an admired fashion presence locally and a buzzy designer nationally, with accolades in magazines like Venus, Nylon, and Lucky.
“When we all started designing here in the early 2000s, Portland was better known for fleece. We thought we were inventing something out of thin air,” says local clothing designer Elizabeth Dye. “Then we met Dayna and realized that she was way ahead of us. We were joining her party. She showed us how it’s done [and made] time to champion the next generation of designers.”
Now, 36 years after shaping her first labor-intensive crown, Pinkham Millinery is taking its Old World techniques into the future. Pinkham’s three-person team is building out an e-commerce site with various sizes of their most popular hats (including a collapsible, packable hat that’s a hit with travelers). The team’s even found a way to speed the process of finishing custom toppers for visiting tourists from days to hours. The secret? A countertop pizza warming oven that dries freshly blocked hats in a fraction of the time of air-drying.
“I’m really lucky. This weird thing happened to me that just took me on a path and I said, ‘Let’s do it. I’m going to go with it,’” Pinkham says of her journey. “And I got lucky that I have these strange gifts that allow me to just keep going forward.”