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From sketch to thread, how Christine A. Moore designs the Kentucky Derby's finest hats

Moore's hats have been on Kentucky Derby posters and have been donned by celebrities like Mary J. Blige and Kate Upton. Matt Eisenberg/espnW

Creating one of the more elegant hats that'll be worn at the Kentucky Derby takes Christine A. Moore and her staff around six hours, and that doesn't include the time to sketch the design with crayon on a piece of paper.

That, alone, takes her about an hour once she has the idea locked down.

Moore, who owns Christine A. Moore Millinery, designs hats inside her store for each of horse racing's biggest events, from the Triple Crown to the Breeders' Cup. Her dessert collection, made for the Breeders' Cup (since one of its sponsors is Goodie Girls), is straight out of a bakery: colorful macaroons, slices of strawberry pie, even cupcakes.

But she is mostly known for designing larger, lavish, decorative hats for the pinnacle of horse racing. Moore has two hats that are featured in the Kentucky Derby Museum. Singers Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige and model Kate Upton are among the celebrities who have been photographed donning her hats, and Moore said former tennis star Steffi Graf will be wearing one of her hats at Churchill Downs this year.

In 2009, the first year Moore watched the race in person, her pieces were not only used in the event's official poster, but she designed the hat worn by Mattel's limited-edition Kentucky Derby Barbie.

That hat, part of Mattel's celebration of the 50th anniversary of Barbie, took Moore just three hours to make. She used about seven yards of horsehair to make a mini straw crown that was all brim, then added a hand-rolled rose.

Hats intended for people, though, are made from various materials, whether it's Panama straw (which is grown in Ecuador) or parasisal from China. Once she has the color scheme and design picked, she'll either buy the hat dyed or dye it herself.

She then blocks the hat with steam to match the shape of a person's head. Once she's done, a staffer puts in grosgrain to prevent its shape from growing and to match the customer's head size. She then wires the brim for a finer look, covers the hat with a silk binding so the straw doesn't poke out and finally binds the edge on the hat.

On a workstation in the middle of Moore's 10th-floor office studio, located in New York's Garment District, the trim, made from either silk, organza, taffeta, horsehair or feathers, is then cut and patterned out. For Moore's new collection this year, silk trim is hand painted to add detail and color, and make it look more like a flower.

The trim is sewn together and then churned into leaves, petals, bows, flowers and other shapes. Once it is sewn delicately onto the hat itself, voila.

"They try to mimic real life," Moore said.

espnW caught up with Moore to talk about her process, the Derby's extravagance and why some people will shell out hundreds to thousands of dollars for a hat they'll wear once.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

espnW: What goes into designing hats for various events?

Christine A. Moore: For Churchill Downs, I realize a lot of people think of Louisville as the Midwestern South, and there's definitely a Southern belle feeling to their dressing. I understood that it was supposed to be lovely and elegant and feminine and go big or go home. They want big and frilly. They want all that pageantry. I got that right away.

espnW: And specifically the Kentucky Derby?

CM:The thing that's different about the Kentucky Derby that's not anywhere else in the country, is that they, as a mass, they grow up, they wean themselves on Derby. It is their biggest day. It's bigger than Christmas. Men and women, they look forward to it. You're really born with a bottle of bourbon. [laughs] They grow up dreaming about Derby, dreaming about what they're going to do for Derby, what they're going to wear, how it's going to be, how the party is. It's like their birthday. There's no other city that we have in the United States, there's no other place that's like that. I realize it's such a part of their makeup in who they are that it's like, they won't think twice about wearing a broad brim, they won't think twice about too much trim, they won't think twice about a bright color. That is what they want. They want to be dazzled. That's why it's like, "OK, for the Kentucky Derby, you put the most dazzling things out, the most outrageous things."

espnW: While the Kentucky Derby features much larger and extravagant hats, how does that style differ from the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes?

CM: It's more structured, smaller brims, more sleek trim for the other two. As the racing goes north for the Triple Crown, it becomes sleeker and more chic-New York style. The Preakness tends to be a little bit between. But there are women who will dress for Preakness and then for Belmont in a big way sheerly because that's their Derby. So they'll go all out.

espnW: Do people often travel to Louisville the day of the Derby without a hat to buy one there?

CM:When you get down there, it's like a carnival of hat people. I've heard of stories where if you need a pink hat, they'll go out in the back and spray paint it pink. That's millinery travesty; that is a sin, a crime. That's the thing -- I don't want to be part of that. That's too crazy.

espnW: What are some problems you might encounter when making a hat?

CM: Just little things, annoyances really. You could put this whole thing on and it could snag and you're like, "Argh!" because it snags really easily if your needle's dull. The tension gets off on the machine and then you're like "Ahhhh!" Or you've been sewing for so long that there's no thread left.

We rarely have to start from scratch. There's always a solution to a problem. We used to [have to start over], but we figured out how to circumvent the problem, so it's a lot of communication, making sure everybody knows what they're doing and keeping an eye on each other to make sure nobody missed a step or something.

espnW: Do you ever go up to someone wearing one of your hats and tell them you made it?

CM: It depends on the situation. At Derby I will. Or at an event, I'll say, "Thank you for wearing my hat," and they're like, "Oh my gosh, you're Christine!" Sometimes I will go up and go, "I like your hat," just to encourage them. It depends on where I'm at. Sometimes people come to me and go, "I love that hat, where'd you get it?" And I'll say, "I got it at Rodes" [a specialty retail store in Louisville] and just send them there. Because if I just say, "Oh, I made it," they'll go, "Oh, well, she made it." You know what I mean? It's a testimonial.

espnW: When someone's looking at a photo gallery of the hats people wear at the Kentucky Derby, how can they tell they're looking at one of your hats?

CM: My style is really distinctive because we do make our own flowers and no one else does that. People say all the time they can tell when it's one of my hats. And I know when I'm getting knocked off because it's very distinctive in how we do it -- just little techniques that they don't do or leave out that they don't know about. I don't know they [everyday people] could do it for other people, but people tell me all the time that they know, they go, "Wow, I saw your hats everywhere. I know your hats anywhere."