Maurice Johnson, a Baptist pastor, has launched Mable Dean Millinery Creations at his home in Wellington. Photos by Ruth Cincotta/The Coastal Star
A retiring Boca milliner fretted about finding a suitable successor. Today, she’s brimming with pride over her heir apparent — a pastor with a flair for design and a dedication to the centuries-old craft.
By Mary Thurwachter
With both Mother’s Day and the Kentucky Derby in May, this is a big month for hat makers.
But finding a milliner — not just someone who sells women’s hats but one who designs and makes stylish headpieces from scratch — isn’t so easy anymore.
For years, fashionable women looking for a special topper for Easter, Mother’s Day, the Triple Crown races, social functions or church, flocked to Hats Etcetera, the specialty shop on Federal Highway in Boca Raton where milliner Carina Gatto held court.
“We’re still here,” Gatto said, although she retired from hat making a year ago. “We’re just ‘Etcetera’ now. We do embroidery and monogramming. There isn’t a hat to be found in the shop.” In-vogue, made-from-scratch hats can be found, however, at the Wellington home of Gatto’s protégé, Maurice Johnson, senior pastor at Roanoke Missionary Baptist Church in downtown West Palm Beach.
The two have known each other for about 12 years, having met when Johnson and his wife, Charmaine, a lifelong fine hat aficionado, walked into Gatto’s shop at 6455 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton.
“My wife didn’t buy a hat off the shelf that day, but we ended up going back to have Carina do a custom design,” Johnson said.
The result was a stunning beret-style pillbox made with starbright Swiss braid, adorned with gold and bronze organza flower buds and trimmed with a gold-bead/Swarovski crystal band.
“That was the hat that started it all for us,” he said. “After that, my wife only wanted to wear Carina’s designs.”
Until now, that is.
These days Charmaine, a kindergarten teacher and mother of three, finds herself in the enviable position of being married to a milliner.
Over the years, Johnson and Gatto got to know each other because Johnson would frequently bring down an outfit or a pair of shoes his wife planned to wear to a special event and wanted a stylish hat to go with them.
“My wife was working and couldn’t always come down to the shop in Boca,” Johnson said. So the clergyman came to Gatto with details of what his wife had in mind.
“He always had a clear idea of what he wanted,” Gatto said. During the last couple of years, as Gatto eyed retirement, she invited Johnson to work with her.
Hat making is hard work, Gatto said, and her hand strength wasn’t as good as it had been. Turned out, her protégé learned fast and clearly had an aptitude for hat making.
“He’s very talented,” said Gatto, 74. “He has a great eye for color and design. He comes up with ideas I would never have thought of.”
Johnson, 41, wasn’t looking for a new profession and, in fact, isn’t giving up his day job at the church.
“I would have never in a million years thought I could make a hat from scratch,” he said. As a teenager, he leaned toward becoming a mortician, like others in his family.
It didn’t take long, though, for Johnson, who grew up in West Palm Beach, to seek the counsel of his pastor about a calling he felt toward the ministry.
Johnson has been at Roanoke Missionary Baptist Church for 15 years. Being a man of the cloth is stressful, he said, and hat making, he has discovered, is therapeutic.
From his light-filled office/millinery studio at his Wellington home, he designs, creates and decorates beautiful women’s hats. “When I’m in here, the kids don’t come in,” he said.
His original inspirations for hat design were his grandmother, Mable Dean, and her sister. In fact, Johnson named his company after his grandmother. “She was a true woman of grace,” he said.
For new designs, Johnson finds ideas in various places, from flowers and bushes outside his home office, to lampshades, to shoes, to other pretty toppers he admires, including some he sees on the women in his church.
All the hat making work is done by hand, and Johnson doesn’t use a glue gun to secure feathers or flowers or other adornments to his creations.
“Glue is a no-no,” he said. “Carina wouldn’t approve.”
Gatto, who lives in Delray Beach, learned to make hats as a little girl in the Netherlands from her mother.
“It came naturally to me,” she said.
In Boca Raton, Gatto enjoyed a large following.
One of the hats she made was worn to William and Kate’s royal wedding, and some of her creations were purchased by movie stars, including Stephanie Powers, who wrote Gatto a letter to tell her how much she loved her hat. Many of her creations have gone to the Kentucky Derby.
Gatto has lived in the U.S. for 50 years and is an American citizen. She made her living for many years as a paralegal and didn’t launch her millinery career until she was 50.
“It’s never too late for someone to start another career,” Gatto said.
She continues to mentor Johnson. “Every now and then I get an S.O.S.,” Gatto said. And since Johnson now owns all her hat-making equipment, she drives to his home studio to help him find solutions.
“I’m really proud of him,” Gatto said. “I worked very hard at my trade and it’s nice to find someone who shares my passion. It shows people certain traditions do not die out.”
Johnson has already churned out dozens of hats and is working on a website where he can sell them. In the meantime, customers can reach him by phone at Mable Dean Millinery Creations,777-3881.