Not quite a milliner, she does make hats look like a million bucks.
by Jess McCuan . photos by Matt Rose
If Asheville is the Paris of the South, Simone Bernhard wants to be its Coco Chanel. And if you run into her on the street, you’ll notice a resemblance. Bernhard, who moved back to Asheville this spring from upstate New York, is often bedecked in blacks, whites, vintage hats and strings of beads reminiscent of the famous French designer. Dressing well isn’t just something she does. It’s an activity that represents her most deeply held beliefs. “Life is too short to say—‘God, I wish I’d worn those fishnet stockings today,’” says the 48-year-old, who grew up in Asheville. “Tomorrow, you might get run over by a bus, and you will be sad you didn’t wear those fishnets. It’s important to present a persona that expresses who you are—regardless of the status quo.”
Bernhard, like the best Ashevilleans, is a bit of a Renaissance woman. In the late ‘90s, she was an assistant conductor of the Asheville Symphony. She’s led church choirs and done jazz gigs and been a singer in a Motown band. A theatre type, she’s lived in cities all over the country and done everything from opera to impersonations of Dolly Parton. But there’s always been a fashionista in her mix of vocations, and at her last stop, near Buffalo, she had a good bit of success selling vintage hats at farmer’s markets.
Truth be told, Bernhard is not exactly a hatmaker, something she readily admits. “I’m not a milliner, I’m a modiste,” she says, explaining that the latter, derived from the French word “mode,” is a bit broader, someone who might make hats but also deals in clothing, jewelry and various trends. Through her new company, Chapeaux by Simone, she’s selling hats—vintage or vintage-inspired—that she’s bought or rescued and jazzed up by attaching feathers or baubles. In the run-up to the royal wedding last month, she was making and selling “fascinators,” dainty headbands with feathers and flowers or beads attached to give their wearers a bit of over-the-top British pomp.
Bernhard, who moved here at age 7 and still has a family home in Fairview, claims she rarely sees a boring-looking Ashevillean. There’s something about the retro architecture, she says, and the influx of arty tourists these days that encourages people to step up their fashion game. “Everybody has a stage,” she says of downtown. “Walking the streets, I see the extreme hippy to preppy to corporate to really fashion-forward. The artists and designers and creative fringe do whatever they want.” It’s a refreshing change for someone like her, who’s celebrated unusual dressing for years but lived in cities where her tastes weren’t necessarily shared.
Last month, she started selling Chapeaux by Simone hats and headgear in front of the Grove Arcade and at Kress Emporium downtown. Now, especially at the Grove Arcade on weekends, she’ll get a close-up view of our city’s denizens (and tourists), fashionable or not. Her hats start at around $45 and range to $75—depending on if she bled when she was making the hat, she quips. Her collection of bridal headpieces is more expensive, with some running as high as $300.
In the bigger picture, Bernhard wants to help Asheville play dress-up. “We should try to match how gorgeous the surroundings are,” she says. “At the very least, we should give all those tourists something to look at.”
To see more of Bernhard’s hats, check out www.chapeauxbysimone.com.