The train raced through the bustling city of Beijing. I looked around, realising the only other foreigner besides me was my mother, Cool Marge.

As I sat, in awe of my surroundings, I was so grateful that FOTF had brought me here and given me this experience.

Milano Imai In China

How I ended up in China

My journey began with an idea for a dress, a meeting with my friend and dress maker Andrew Semple, weeks of sewing, problem solving and finally wearing the finished product to Tattersall’s Girl’s Day Out Race Day one sunny Saturday in December.

Winner white race dress

Lucky enough to win first place, the amazing prize was a trip for two to one of four destinations; Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore or Shanghai. I chose my mum. And then we chose China.

Amongst the many amazing sights, sounds and tastes we enjoyed during our trip, the highlight for me was having the opportunity to meet China’s one and only milliner, Elisabeth Koch.

Meet China’s only Milliner: Elisabeth Koch

Since moving to China 9 years ago, Elisabeth has really made her mark there, designing, making and teaching the Chinese about the art of hat making.

Elisabeth’s work has graced the covers of Harpers Bazaar, Supplamentair, Figaro, Cosmopolitan, Elle and countless other Chinese magazines.

Her most important achievement was being featured on the Cover of Vogue China’s 100th edition, worn by the most famous actress in the country, Shu Qi!! Special.

Vogue China 100th edition magazine Shu Qi

I must say I was a little star struck and a little nervous to meet Elisabeth, so it was a refreshing surprise to find her so incredibly down to earth and willing to share her time with me.

Elizabeth Koch hats fascinators millinery

Interview with Elisabeth

Elisabeth was kind enough to answer a few questions, providing me with some insight into what it’s like being China’s only milliner…

Milano: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up and how you got to where you are today?

Elisabeth: I grew up in America but my parents are Dutch. I have a very crafty family; my whole family makes things. My mum was always sewing dresses for us and my dad is a DIY hero. When I was young if my barbie dolls didn’t have it, I’d make it for them.

When I was 13 we moved to Berlin, then to Luxembourg, where I graduated high school. Then I moved to the UK and graduated university with a degree in Communications.

I then moved to Amsterdam and into the world of finance, ending up in the marketing department of a bank in Brussels. During this time, I’d go home every night and create things, sew, draw and knit. I was always making things.

Shortly after I married my husband, he got a job in Beijing and we had to relocate. I didn’t know what I was going to do there, but I did know it was my chance to do something I really love, something with my hands.

I didn’t want to spend years learning to make shoes or dresses and I’m really not into jewellery, I never wear any, and I thought ‘I can make hats, I’ve always loved hats!’

Even before studying hats, I would make fascinators and hair pieces to wear to weddings and I loved collecting vintage hat boxes. My own wedding invite even requested guests to wear hats.

vintage hat boxes packaging
So I went online and started a course at the Wombourne School of Millinery in the UK (near Wolverhampton). I loved the course and bought a bunch of hat moulds.

The minute I got to Beijing, I hit the ground running. I got labels made, business cards, flyers, a website- it wasn’t easy.

Then it was getting out there and telling people. You really have to wear your own creations.