Lola Lanyi’s first hats sold for $3.25. Today ladies sigh and hubbies moan at her $60 specials
ABOUT THE time the war broke out the fashionable ladies of Brantford, Ont., were looking rather more elegant than usual and
feeling very well pleased with themselves. They had discovered a little milliner, a pretty brown-eyed Czech, with the lilting name of Lola Lanyi, who spoke almost no English but who had a way with feathers, flowers and ribbons. For $1.25 she would make over a hat. For $3.25 turn out an original model.
Today, any woman wanting a Lanyi hat—and some have been known to buy them two at a time—pays $60 for it, a price that is made up of $30 to Lanyi and a 100% markup to the store that sells it. In Canada, for a domestic product at least, this price is phenomenal, puts Lanyi not more than a 10or 20-dollar bill below Sally Victor, John-Frederics and other highhat New Yorkers.
To the husbands who get the bills for the Lanyi hats, Mme. Lola probably appears like a serpent swathed in sables and dripping with diamonds. Millinery buyers, who know what goes into a model hat in the way of work and materials, who know the volume it takes to build up a paying business, think she’s probably starving. Lanvi’s own estimate is, “We are making a living.”
Unlike the Lanyi hats with the high-dollar sign on them, there is no elegance about the Lanyi studio or about the Lanyis themselves. Their address, both home and business, is 648 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal—and is a timeworn apartment building with a smell of cooking clinging to the entrance, with no elevator, and with Lola Lanyi Hat Creations one floor up. Here buyers and sellers, friends and strangers are ushered into a large front room, the walls covered
with photographs and clippings and advertising tear sheets, the tables and chairs strewn with hats made and half-made, with bolts of straw, bunches of flowers, handfuls of ribbon.
From this room the team of Lanyi, Armand and Lola, carry on their business. When the bell rings it is Armand who opens the door, introduces the visitor to Mme. Lanyi, who, he makes it quite clear, wears the laurels. The first impression is that there is some mistake, that this shy-mannered woman with her dark hair in a tidy roll, in her dress of ordinary black, could not be the Lola Lanyi of the $60 hats. She is small, about five-feet four, built on the European plan, with a prettily rounded figure that’s a little plumper than it should be, with a heart-shaped face and a startling contrast of creamy-white skin with dark eyes and hair. She looks about 40, is probably a few years older than that, seems much younger, partly because she speaks English with a soft-voiced hesitancy, has a diffident manner that is sweet and schoolgirlish.
It is only in the last two years that the name of Lanyi has figured in the Canadian fashion picture, less
than eight years since the
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Lanyis first came to Canada. When Mme. Lanyi began wholesaling in Montreal she had no money, was recovering from a two-year illness resulting from a complete breakdown.
“I wasn’t at all sure,” she felt then, "that I could make hats or do anything else, but my husband urged me to make a few and he would show them.” The results of this was immediate saleand a demand for more, but although Lola Lnnyi’s confidence was returning, she had almost no materials to work with.
“I had a few flowers,” she smiles at the memory of that small start, “and I arranged them in bunches round the room. The buyers came in and ordered from those, saying, ‘I’ll have a hat of this and a hat of that.’ ”
Although the buyers were excited about her hats, eager for more, Lola Lanyi had other difficulties. The big stores did not pay, some for 60 days, none sooner than three weeks. The Lanyis needed a backer and they went to the only man of property they knew in Montreal—their grocer. They explained their predicament to him and he cashed their cheques, postdated three weeks.
At the time Lanyi began wholesaling she offered something that buyers had not seen since Wartime Prices put a ban on imported models. Her styles were sophisticated, done in beautiful materials, with an expert handcrafting that has not been developed to any extent in this country. She held a degree from the Cours Mozart, school of millinery design, in Paris, had worked in salons in Vienna, Budapest and Prague to develop her skill, particularly in the workmanship of fur hats.
It was not easy to find the materials she wanted, but her husband became her buyer, scoured the small importers, warehouses, discovered hidden away fine Italian and Chinese straws, Swiss ribbons, French veilings and flowers in small quantities that had not interested the big manufacturers. When the market was exhausted Lanyi designed her own flowers, explained how she wanted them made. Manufacturers realized they had a designer who would be as much of a help to them as they to her, and now some of them make her designs, give her first pick and offer the rest in the open market.
“In one house,” says Lanyi, “they have a girl who works only for me.”
In designing her hats Lanyi sometimes makes sketches, sometimes works right with her materials. She has pretty, plump white hands that look as though they might belong to a girl of 20, but at work they’re the sure hands of an expert. They’re hands that have been trained not only to millinery but to piano, sculpture, painting and jewellery. She designs her own blocks on which to shape her hats, and has them made, some in Montreal, some in New York. Then she selects her straw, her flowers—Lanyi hats are mostly flower hats—her other trimmings. She has a genius for combining colors—puts an emerald-green ribbon round a cerise straw hat, uses bold pink roses with vivid green velvet, purple lilacs with moss-green ribbons. In other hands they might look like drugstore calendars, but as Lanyi does them these hats are gay and sophisticated.
Her big problem is to find fingers deft enough to work on her fine materials. The wide-brimmed straws she designed for spring are made not from “hoods”—the felt shapes from which hats are cut—but from braids, some of them no more than half an inch wide. These have to be spiralled on the block, worked wet, every stitch hand-sewn.
She employs four girls at this work, most of them expert now, but all green hands when they came to Lanyi. She trained them, continues to supervise them closely—“She has got to look after every girl’s fingers,” explains her husband—and personally puts the final touches on every hat that goes out of her shop.
Making hats began as a hobby with Lola Lanyi. As a girl in Czechoslovakia she devoted herself to the piano, practicing six or seven hours a day. “I was always interested in fashion,” she says, “but my parents were very conservative, my father was a government employee, and they didn’t want me to do anything.”
It was not till she was married and had two children that she decided one day to go to Paris and learn about hats. What decided her was a search for a particular kind of wide-brimmed linen hat she had in mind for herself. The hat wasn’t to be found, and Mme. Lanyi decided the thing to do was learn how to make them for herself. She went to Paris in 1931, got her diploma from the Cours Mozart, came back to her home in Nitra in southern Czechoslovakia, passed the examinations that excused her from the required three years’ apprenticeship, and set about learning more about hats by choosing a salon whose styles particularly appealed to her and going to work there.
By the time she felt ready to open her own salon the Nazis had walked into Austria. Her daughters were attending a convent near Vienna in order to learn German. She left them there till the end of the school year, sent them to Brussels, and her son, who was then about five, to Louvain. Mme. Lanyi herself went to England, with the family silver hidden among her clothes, worked in London as a housekeeper, because they would not allow her to take a job as a milliner.
“Actually I did make a few hats,” she admits, “for the formal showing of a dress shop in Grosvenor Square.”
By the time she had been in England a year, Armand Lanyi, who had got as far as Belgium, was able to get a passport for Canada, and the Lanyis, united as a family once more, sailed for Canada. They had $1,200, part of which had been raised by the sale of the silver, part by the sale of Mme. Lanyi’s fur coat.
“It was a lovely coat,” she sighs, “but I am not sorry.”
The Lanyis came to Canada, not with the idea of making hats—although Mme. Lola figured she might do a few at first to help out—but to settle as farmers. Armand Lanyi, who was brought up on a farm, who had a university degree in commercial law and who had been sales manager for Ford in his native city, felt he knew enough about agriculture and business to make a go of it.
Because they didn’t speak English and wished to learn it—all the Lanyis spoke Czech, Hungarian, Polish, German and French—they chose English rather than French Canada, and, on the advice of friends they made on the boat, decided to settle in Brantford, Ont. They arrived there in June, too late for a crop that year, bought an 80-acre farm, which they intended to stock with dairy cattle. Too late they discovered the land was no good for anything, that the house was a ruin and there wasn’t a decent building on the place.
The Lanyis nearly froze that first winter. Armand stuffed the chinks in the walls with rags, covered the broken windowpanes with cardboard, but the water in the house turned to ice. Although Lola worked on her hats she could not, at Brantford price, make enough to feed them, and of that winter she says, “We literally starved.”
When they lost that farm the Lanyis rented a more promising one, and Armand figured that truck farming would be more practical. “We could all work at that,” he explains. The following summer father, mother and three children got up at five each morning, hoed, weeded and picked vegetables.
At nine o’clock they piled into a 14-year old jalopy along with as many fresh vegetables as could be packed in with them and drove into town. The children went to school, Mine. Lanyi to her hats, Armand from door to door with his vegetables, which were always quickly sold because they were so freshly picked. “Quite often,” he recalls, “we had a blowout and had to come in on the rim because I didn’t have a tire to change.”
Brantford is “Very Kind”
In spite of the Lanyi’s circumstances the people of Brantford, to some of whom they had letters of introduction, were friendly. Many of those who bought Lanyi vegetables in the morning and Lanyi hats in the afternoon called on them socially in the evenings in their “poor little house,” invited them to their parties, and were, according to Mme. Lanyi, “very kind.” They discovered she could play the piano, and the Women’s Musical Club arranged a special recital at which Mme. Lanyi played Mozart, Chopin and Liszt, for which she received praise from the Brantford Expositor.
What worried the Lanyis most was their children’s health. What comforted them most was telling themselves that “no matter how bad it is here it’s worse over there.” Armand Lanyi, who had been an officer in the Czech Reserve Army, tried to enlist, in Brantford, but he was 50 and they turned him down. He wanted to do war work, and when the manpower situation began to tighten he got a job as sweeper in the Cockshutt plant. Later he worked in the shell department, but lost 12 pounds and realized his health couldn’t stand it.
In 1941 Mme. Lanyi decided to give hatmaking a serious try. She went to Toronto, applied at a small exclusive hat shop which offered her $17 a week. She tried again, landed a job at double that money with a chain of three hat shops. Two months later the whole
family came to Toronto, but after working there eight months Mme. Lola felt “it wasn’t the place I belonged to,” and the Lanyis moved on to Montreal.
There Armand Lanyi went to work for Vickers. Lola made the rounds of the department stores and exclusive women’s fashion shops, asked $40 a week as a designer and was laughed at. Taking the advice that she needed factory experience she went to one of the largest hat factories there, where they took her on as forelady’s assistant, gave her their best handmade hats to do. She stayed a year and then had a nervous breakdown.
Now, after two years of small success, the Lanyis can tell the story of their first years in Canada without bitterness and with a little humor. Today they are selling, the year round, from four to five dozen hats a week in 14 or 15 cities all the way from Halifax to Vancouver. Buyers for the small, exclusive shops write them friendly, ecstatic letters telling “how nice your hats are” or even “how we danced with joy when they arrived.” Some of the large department stores run whole Lanyi promotions with full-page ads, or feature Lanyi with or even ahead of the big New Yorkers. A few are not so enthusiastic, regard her hats as too sophisticated for Canadian cities, regard Lanyi as a stopgap who won’t figure in the picture when Paris models come in again.
The Lanyi Team
At the moment Lanyi has all the business she can handle. She and her husband, who work as a team, begin their day in early morning, work usually till nine in the evening. Then they take their hats down to the station and indulge in their one. recreation of the day—coffee at Childs. Mme. Lola does nothing but hats and Armand attends to everything else.
“I am manager, secretary, buyer, cook and sweeper,” he explains with a broad smile.
“I taught him to cook,” says Mme. Lola, “and now he is better at it than I am. Things don’t turn out right for me any more, so I leave it to him.”
With three hungry young people and two hard-working adults to feed, Armand has a busy time, concentrates on tasty and nourishing goulashes, at which he is an expert, cooks everything but the desserts, which they buy.
Occasionally the Lanyis take a trip to New York to see the fashion openings. “The first time I was afraid I might find myself copying,” Mme. Lanyi says. “But on the way home on the train I began getting ideas and making sketches, not like anything I’d seen but for my next fall showing.” Like all designers Mme. Lanyi herself has to beware of copyists.
She very seldom sees her own creations after they leave her hands. “I did meet one in Grand Central station in New York,” she recalls. “And I knew it was someone from Winnipeg, because I had only enough of those flowers for the one hat.” Lanyi hats are usually not more than four or five of a kind, carefully distributed so that only one of each model can be bought in any one city.
“When a woman pays so much for a hat,” Lanyi explains, “she doesn’t want to meet it everywhere.”
In designing, Lanyi works with the not-so-very-young woman in mind, “not because I don’t enjoy designing for young girls, but because they usually don’t spend that much on a hat.”
.She works almost exclusively for the mink-and-sable trade, makes hats which the average woman wouldn’t know what to do with if she did have
the money to buy them. Occasionally she compromises with circumstances, makes a hat with a simple ribbon trimming for Calgary, “because it is a small city and they wear things simpler there.” Sometimes she gets away from her picture pieces to design a suave turban for the wife of an ambassador, a tidy little sailor to team up with some particular costume that a manufacturer wishes to show assembled.
She has tried to turn out a Lanyi in the ¿able d'hote class, and has a frivolous little toque or ribbon bow ends in wonderful color contrasts, but “the shops tell me they don’t want that; they want only the very best hats from Lanyi.”
Lola’d Like a Hat
Someday, when she gets the time, Mme. Lanyi intends to whip up a little hat for herself. “I am all right in the winter,” she says, “because I have a mink hat, but I must do something for spring, people expect to see Lanyi in a hat.” Another thing she plans to do is get a piano, but “I can’t afford a new one and it takes time to shop around and find a secondhand one that is any good.”
The Lanyis would also like to have larger and more convenient quarters in a place where it would be permissible to use a machine for work which could be done as well that way.
Meanwhile they aren’t complaining. They’re out of Europe and they’re making a living. The elder daughter, Marion, who is now 19, is a hairdresser, helps her father with the business and the house. Olga, who is 17, has a talent for mathematics, is a student at McGill, plans to be an architect. Alex, who is 14, is the only one of the children who takes any interest in his mother’s work, amuses himself making
miniature hats, using a spool as a block.
The Lanyis, naturally, dream of expanding their business. They know from the shops they sell to that American visitors buy some of their models. They feel there might be a market in South American cities. But even if
they never make the big time outside Canada, they have in eight years made Lola Lanyi the big name in hats here. More important still the Lanyis have made a new life for themselves and their children in a city where they feel at home.