By day, Sophie Cooke is a police intelligence worker. By night, she is a milliner (hat-maker), ready to save people from their hat traumas. And when you see Sophie’s work schedule, you really will think she has superhuman powers.
Originally, Sophie, aged 32, began making hats for herself to wear to burlesque nights. As she found it difficult to find what she wanted on the High Street or online within her budget.
It quickly became apparent, that Sophie, who had no prior experience in millinery (hat making) had a talent. She was soon making headwear for other burlesque goers and then she was asked to stock a shop in The Forum in Sheffield’s city centre.
‘It wasn’t my plan, but I liked it!” said Sophie.
The millinery was sadly put on hold for a few years, when moving house and other life commitments took over. Not one to sit still, however, as soon as she had a little more spare time, the hats came out again.
It was at this point that Sophie saw a vintage fair advertised at DQ nightclub. Although she had never sold any of her pieces directly, and was quite nervous about the idea, she decided to give it a go. This turned out to be a very good decision, as her most expensive piece, a diamanté covered top hat, sold within the first ten minutes of the fair opening.
Imogen’s Imagination was born
Since then, Sophie’s business, Imogen’s Imagination, has gone from strength to strength, with orders being placed from customers as far off as the USA and Singapore.
How Sophie finds the time to make so many beautiful creations, I’m not sure. Whilst talking to Sophie, at her home in Hillsborough, where all her items are made, we are surrounded by hats, fascinators, ribbon, fabric, artificial birds and flowers, and more hats. This is surprising, as Sophie still classes this as a hobby.
She hasn’t given up the day job
Sophie also has a full-time job with the South Yorkshire Police. Here she works as an intelligence analyst, which involves crime pattern analysis to assist the proactive and reactive teams.
“Basically, I make sure resources are in the right places. For example, if there is an anti-social behaviour problem in the neighbourhood, I would make sure there are police stationed in the right places to stop or prevent anything untoward from happening.”
Sophie also does a lot of telecoms analysis, where she assists the Crime Investigation Department, in cases which fall short of the major investigation teams.
This all sounds very complicated. One thing is obvious, this is definitely not hats.
Although polar opposites, Sophie tells me she enjoys millinery as it is a welcome escape from the seriousness of her day job. She jokes (or perhaps she was being serious) about making police helmets a little more fabulous. Diamantés were mentioned.
It’s all go for Sophie
What with her day job and her ever expanding hobby, Sophie works seven days a week. One evening after work, she also has to travel to Leeds. Sophie attends a millinery class at Leeds College of Art and Design, which she has been doing for three years. The rest of the week, she has to be extremely disciplined and get to work on making her orders. At weekends she is up and out at the crack of dawn to get to fairs across the country. Some days she is out of the house for more than 12 hours and can have a five hour round trip to get there.
“When I first started, I thought it was a case of making hats and selling them, but the business side of things soon dawned on me.”
Sophie talks about the long list of responsibilities that come with running your own business.
“There’s the emails which are sent back and forth between myself and the customers, especially if I’m making a bespoke piece. Then there is work that goes into promoting my products; posting photos of my designs and writing descriptions to go with them. The travelling to and from fairs, the loading and unloading of the car, and at the end of the day I’ve got to balance my books to make sure I’m making some money!”
“These are all things I never imagined I’d do or could do. Even Facebook, which I now use a lot, was new to me. My hobby has turned into a full-time commitment.”
Sophie is not adverse to hard work. In a bid to move out of her parents home in Stafford and move back to Sheffield, where she went to university, she took on three jobs. Sophi worked for Staffordshire Police, in a chip shop and in an off-license. She only had one evening off a week. So in many ways her hectic lifestyle is nothing new. At least now she is doing something she has a passion for.
“If there is some sort of reward at the end of it all, I don’t mind doing it.”
Rewards come in the form of fabric shopping for Sophie.
“But I do have to restrain myself, it’s easy to get carried away when you’re surrounded by pretty prints and fabrics. I have to keep my sensible head on. Sale items are often hard to resist.”
The icing on the cake for Sophie however is seeing people wearing her creations.
“I get a real sense of pride, because not only has the person liked it enough to buy it, but it obviously wasn’t an impulse purchase, because they’re actually wearing it in public.”
What does pain her however, is that many of the materials which she uses are imported. “If they were made in the UK, they’d be more expensive, but I’d still prefer to use them.”
Sophie tells me the problem is that we don’t have the industry in the UK anymore.
“There are very few manufacturers in the UK for the millinery trade. Everything has been out sourced for years. In the 1960’s people stopped wearing hats. It was no longer a case that a hat was a staple you couldn’t leave the house without. They came to be seen as quite old fashioned, elitist and expensive. The industry died because the business died.”
So what does Imogen’s Imagination offer, that the high street doesn’t? As well as unique designs, Imogen’s Imagination has impeccable customer service. Sophie sends samples of the materials she uses, mock ups of the finished pieces and has detailed consultations with her customers, allowing them to send pictures of their outfits so she can ensure the hat compliments it.