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The woman behind the Kentucky Derby’s most coveted hats: ‘The hat becomes part of you’

Written by on May 1, 2024

It’s a crisp, sunny morning in late March, 40 days until the Kentucky Derby.

I’m in a small midtown Manhattan studio, in a showroom filled to the brim with towers of handmade hats. One of the projects on this week’s docket: A hat requiring 150 handmade silk roses, one for each year of the Kentucky Derby’s unbroken history. Each rose is individually cut and sewn here on site.

“We’ve made 44 roses so far,” says Carol Sulla, director of operations and sales for Christine A. Moore Millinery.

Which leaves “only” 106 roses to be sewn before the first Saturday in May.

Christine Moore is the woman behind many of the Derby’s most coveted hats. She built her early career working on Broadway shows before opening her own shop and focusing on millinery, the craft of hat-making. Moore was the first featured milliner for the Kentucky Derby and received the commission of “Kentucky Colonel” from Governor Andy Beshear in 2022.

The celebrities who have worn her hats top the A-List — Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez are among her numerous clients — and Moore’s hats have made appearances in shows like Gossip Girl, Nashville and The Carrie Diaries. During Derby hat season, which roughly starts in January, they’ll ship out upwards of 1,000 hats, all designed and crafted here in this small studio.

And now I’m here to find my Derby hat.



Patty Ethington in 2009, wearing a Christine A. Moore hat that would one day sit in the Kentucky Derby Museum. (AP Photo / Patti Longmire)

It’s possible that Moore’s most famous hat was a Kentucky Derby commission in 2009. Worn by Patty Ethington of Shelbyville, Ky., the red hat was designed to look like a massive flower and could fit three people under its brim. A photo from the day went viral, and the rest is — almost literally — history: The hat ended up in the Kentucky Derby Museum for 10 years. Ethington is now known for her larger-than-life Derby hats. “The bigger, the better,” she says.

This year, for the 150th anniversary of the Derby, Ethington broke out the big red hat and is bringing it back.

“The very first one that Christine made for me is the one I’m redoing this year,” Ethington tells me. She and Moore worked together to adapt the hat to a new outfit without making any irreversible changes. “We’re putting black in the hat, so I can just add a little bit of a different flair to it, but I can still bring it back to the original red hat that was in the museum.”

For Derby attendees, the dress-to-the-nines fashion game is as much a draw as the race itself — and honoring history is a big part of their calculations, especially on its 150th anniversary.

“I probably started planning my outfit for the Derby three months ago, and I knew I wanted to pay tribute to the Derby,” says Priscilla Turner, another client of Moore’s. “I really wanted to match the caliber that I know other people are coming with.”



A Singer sewing machine sits in Christine Moore’s millinery studio in New York.

For Moore, prepping her clients for “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” involves hundreds of hours of meticulous planning and exacting work.

Millinery, in fact, is as much a game of numbers as horse racing.

The daughter of an engineer, Moore had an early affinity for math but fell in love with the theater in high school, pursuing a degree in costume design and art at Kutztown State University.

It all came into focus when she was partnered with a milliner at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater. Perhaps thanks to her father’s engineering genes, Moore realized she had the brain for precision measurements, while her flourish for design and sculpting sparked her creativity. In 1990, she moved to New York City to work with renowned milliner Rodney Gordon, whose work has appeared in countless Broadway shows.

Four years later, Moore took the plunge, opening her shop on 34th Street. She had no idea how her business would grow, nor did she fancy herself a Derby hat maker. She knew a little about horse racing but didn’t quite grasp the fashion connection to the race until 2000, when she was invited to speak at a boutique in Louisville. She packed three hats for the trip, completely unaware of the pull of Derby fashion, and when attendees snapped them up, she knew she’d found her niche.

Moore’s schedule is jammed now with trunk shows and appearances at other races, including the Arkansas Derby and Florida Derby. She is on call in Louisville for Derby week — creating hats, meeting customers and making last-minute emergency adjustments.

Despite her well-earned prestige, Moore has remained intentionally mom-and-pop in her business model. Her husband, Blake Seidel, is her business partner, and Sulla has been with Moore for eight years. Sulla grew up 15 minutes from the Belmont race track but knew little about horse racing and came to Moore via the theater. She worked in props and was looking for something steadier than the contract-to-contract work Broadway offers.

Many of Moore’s designers come from similar theater backgrounds, with Moore offering them part-time work and additional income to carry them through their otherwise peripatetic career arc.



There are hundreds of hats, samples and fabrics inside the store.

Moore’s studio is on the 10th floor of a building on Manhattan’s bustling 34th Street, wedged between a Foot Locker and an H&M and facing the window displays of the iconic Macy’s flagship store. To get there, I proceed up a tight elevator and into a narrow hallway I can only describe as “greige,” through a fluorescent-lit stairwell and finally to an unassuming brown door with the sign: “CHRISTINE A. MOORE Millinery.”

When the door opens, I’ve stepped through the looking glass. I’m greeted by color from floor to ceiling — bows, brims, flowers, ribbons, feathers, silks, striped hat boxes and vintage fashion posters.

A few steps through this showroom, I walk into the back workroom where the real magic happens: The room isn’t large and is quiet but quite busy, with the hum of sewing machines and steamers. Eight people are ironing, steaming, shaping, cutting, pinning and hand-sewing hats and trims. Brightly colored spools of thread adorn the walls and work surfaces. A board pinned with dozens of ribbons in rainbow colors hangs above an AC unit. There’s Tupperware filled with tiny glittery balls, another with what looks like glass marbles. I can’t help but think that a Taylor Swift fan could find everything they need for an Eras Tour concert here.

Between the hats and trim hanging on the walls are vintage fashion posters and laminated instruction sheets:

Does it have a lining?
Does it need a comb?
Does it get feathers?
Does it get beads/discoball/wire/embellishment?
Check for rogue needles and pins?
Still not sure? Always check the spec, or ask 🙂


Thread and fabric of every color inside Christine Moore’s store located off 34th Avenue in New York.

Moore is in the back of the room, shaping a pink hat, pulling it down around a head-shaped block and applying steam to stretch and mold it. She’s pulling with a vigor that alarms me, that only the most experienced hands could perform with confidence, almost wrestling the fabric into submission. (When I first arrived, I was afraid to even touch the hats on display, worried that one stray squeeze might undo hours of labor. Sulla assures me: “Just go for it. They’re sturdy.”)

“It’s not like sewing clothing,” Moore says. “We never know what our products are going to be. The hat materials come in, and they’re just a lump.”

This is the first step: Steam the fabric and craft the hat around these blocks. Nearby is a binder filled with instructions on how to create the non-custom lines that go into stores and online. The step-by-step tutorial seems intended to leave no room for error so that the original designs stay true to the designer.

“It’s truly art,” Moore says. “There are a lot of milliners you look at and they’re manufacturers, creating these pieces but without a real solid line to it.” She contends that there are “only a few” hat designers in the United States and Europe who have a distinctive look “like Oscar de la Renta would have.”

Above all, Moore is allergic to pastiche.

“Sometimes people give us research from another designer, which I hate,” Moore says. “I prefer a blank slate. Every designer hates it when they’re given somebody else’s research. I glance at it but I’m never looking at it again. I don’t want anybody else’s work stuck in my head. As a creative mind, it gets stuck, and you keep going back to it.”

Her calling card, and what has drawn so many Kentucky Derby attendees to her door, is her custom, sometimes painstaking, handmade design.

“Besides saying ‘yes we can do it,’ because all of these theater people are trained to do whatever they need to do, we started making our own trim,” Moore says. “I don’t buy it at the store. I make the flowers by hand.”

Moore is famous for the fabric flowers she creates, whether it’s 150 roses to mark the 150th Derby anniversary or a single delicate pansy made to mirror a pair of earrings. Within a few weeks, she will have a customer’s vision completed and shipped.

“She ships them in the most beautiful boxes,” Turner tells me. “Black and white boxing with her label, meticulously packaged.”



Christine A. Moore (l) helps our writer Hannah Vanbiber (r) find a Derby hat.

Back to the March morning in the studio. I’m choosing my hat.

Once selected, the hat will travel with Moore’s entourage to Louisville, where I’ll pick it up as soon as I arrive, several days later than they do. This is a work project, so in some ways, I’m approaching my choice with a dogged attempt at practicality first. I tell Moore that I need a hat I can “run around in, do interviews, not worry about it knocking people in the face.”

She tells me not to worry about that yet; let’s start with what I like. “Walk around and pull out anything that catches your eye.” I’m reminded of what it was like picking out a wedding dress, which for me was fraught with indecision and anxiety. Walking through a showroom, trying to feel your way to something that feels like “you,” requires a mix of forethought and some kind of in-the-moment alchemy.

But Moore knows what she’s doing. By the time I’m done with my loop of the showroom, I have at least seven hats. Moore helps me try them on, sliding a loop over my hair and fitting the top on like a headband, all the while asking about my dress and shoes and drawing out my vision for the outfit. She talks me through colors and shapes.

We narrow it down to a perky pink “Ashlina” fascinator created from hand-sculpted patterned paper toyo straw, trimmed with a hand-cut and sewn silk petal flower and beaded centers. The magical moment for me was when Moore stepped over and tugged it gently down to my brow line — lower than I ever would have thought a hat should go! — and suddenly, everything popped.

This was the one.

For Moore, that magical moment is all in a day’s work. “Christine is very good at looking at somebody, and within 10 minutes she has their personality, and she knows what won’t just look beautiful on you but will suit you,” Sulla says.

In Ethington’s words, “I know Christine can make the hat special. She’ll say, ‘You gotta trust me.’ And I do.”

The goal, Moore tells me, is always to create something unique.

“You’re part of the artwork; you’re finishing the artwork,” Moore says. “The hat becomes part of you.”

Dana O’Neil contributed to this story.

(Photos by Nando Di Fino and Hannah Vanbiber unless otherwise noted)

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