Quarter Top Hats: Kabuki Design Studio

By: Tara McLellan

A Small Selection of Designs from Kabuki Design Studios’ Owner & Designer Tracy Thomson

For milliner and accessories designer Tracy Thomson, her artistic career has truly come full circle in New Orleans. “Hats basically start out as circles. Circles to me represent eternity and continuance, and much more,” says Thomson. To her, circles’ many meanings are demonstrated by her interaction with customers all over the world. “My hats always seem to come back to me,” she says. “I see them on the street and instantly have a connection to the people that buy and wear them. The circle brings together a community. I love the whole idea of that.”

The history of Kabuki Design Studios starts with a theatrical journey from New York and ends up in the French Quarter. “I was working with a performing arts group that traveled from New York to New Orleans for a performance at the Contemporary Arts Center,” says Thomson. “I started a studio there and began making hats and costumes. One thing led to Mardi Gras and then to Jazz Fest and then before I knew it I had my Design Studio in the French Quarter.”

It’s Just Fun To Say Kabuki

For a people person like Thomson, creating hats has become more than an artistic venture. For her, it’s a way to interact with her customers and the community. “This is the best job in the world,” she says. “I get to see my artwork walking around and people from all over the world tell me that they have connected with others simply because they recognize my hats.” People connections are at the root of all of Thomson’s creations. The name Kabuki alone popped into her head because it reminded her of her own parents meeting and falling in love in Japan. “It reminds me of travelling and all those wonderful art objects they brought back with them,” says Thomson. “And, even, more, it’s just fun to say Kabuki.”

Kabuki hats come in all shapes and sizes, and for all kinds of people. “We’ve got something for those people that come in and say ‘I’m such a hat person,’ and we’ve also got something for those people that come in and say the opposite,” says Thomson. From colorful fabric hats bought on shopping expeditions to New York City, to dramatic velvet evening hats, to twisted paper straw hats that love to travel (they collapse to fit a suitcase or bag!), and playful tablecloth vinyl rain hats, each hat is made from simple materials used in a unique way. According to Thomson, “All of my hats are one of a kind. I like it that way, and so do my customers.” Large or small, these hats make a definite statement that collectors can’t seem to get enough of. “I have collectors that visit whenever they are in town, whether it’s Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest or simply a vacation, as well as locals that come in to see what’s new. I buy only a few yards of each fabric, so after it’s used up, that series is finished. It’s fun to always be working with new materials.”

The Famous Water Meter Hat

Perhaps one of the most popular of her creations is the New Orleans water meter hat. “New Orleans artists have been using the water meter image for a while now because it’s just plain cool. The design, with its crescent moon and stars, really captures the imagination,” says Thomson. “I decided to take a rubbing and create a line of hats from that iconic image so that people would have a little bit of New Orleans to bring home with them. It’s a much better alternative than being nabbed at the airport for stealing the original!”

Since Thomson moved to New Orleans 18 years ago, the French Quarter has become more than just a place to work. For her, and most of the other Royal Street merchants who surround her, it’s home. “We all have such a great rapport, especially on Royal Street,” says Thomson. “We are all unique. I’m blessed to be in the French Quarter.” For her, the romance of the Quarter is inescapable. “I see something new every day, whether it’s the light on a building or noticing a little corner. It’s truly a charming place.”

Warning: Once you see a Kabuki Design Studio hat, you may start to see them everywhere. But it’s not a trick of the eyes. Tracy Thomson’s distinctive style has become a chapeau phenomenon, with fans logging in from the great Northwest of the United States, from camel rides in the desert, and from Mardi Gras right here in New Orleans. So, what’s all the fuss? It’s more than just style. For most customers, both first time and returning, it’s a feeling. “People tell me they recognize my hats all over, and that’s so great,” she says. “It’s so wonderful to create a product that simply makes people happy.”

Kabuki Design Studio
1036 Royal Street

Tara McLellan, a freelance writer, book author, and columnist, has been featured in Metropolitan Home Magazine, New Orleans Magazine, New Orleans Homes and Lifestyles, and St. Charles Avenue Magazine. She lives and works in the New Orleans area.