Vintage Designer Bios: Frank Olive

Frank Olive must have been a delight. "A hat is basically a prop", he says. "It gives you a moment of joy, mystery, fantasy". He derived much excitement from providing this sort of millinery magic, in a scene he describes with great satisfaction -

"She comes in with her boyfriend or her husband, sometimes she brings her daughter; she wants that touch of mystery a hat can provide. There is nothing more incredible than watching a young girl's face as she puts on her first hat and looks at herself in the mirror - sometimes she can't believe what she sees. She doesn't recognize the face that stares back at her. She has been transformed. She goes out happy."

With this joie de vivre, Frank Olive connected with women on a very personal level. He understood innately their needs in fashion, and in particular in millinery. He just seemed to know.

Frank Olive was born a twin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1929. As a child, Frank created costumes and sets at home after watching movies in the theater. It was a pleasure from the beginning.

He came to New York to create for the theater, likely in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Designers Norman Norell and Adri, also Midwesterners, became interested in his work and his life, and their support prompted Frank to begin designing hats. He had the knack, and with time, business was flourishing. Then in 1971 his twin died. In mourning, he plunged into millinery work for comfort and escape. In the same year he moved from a tiny boutique he'd originally opened in the early 1950s (La Boutique) to Frank Olive's World, a larger establishment on the West Side that also sold dresses.

But Frank Olive's hats always had the spotlight. Indeed, we have never seen a Frank Olive dress, so they were not likely big sellers when originally made. But his hats struck women as something special - they are whimsically sophisticated, with superior quality any vintage clothing collector can recognize. This gallery of Frank Olive hats gives a glimpse:

Frank Olive hats were often inspired by men's wear with confidently feminine details. They tended to have clean, chic lines and simple details in the best of materials. Labels include:
  • Frank Olive New York
  • Counter-Fit by Frank Olive
  • Frank's Girl
  • Private Collection (dubbed as "one-of-a-kind")

Frank Olive hats were sold at I. Magnin, Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller. He also collaborated with or designed for Lillie Rubin, Oscar de la Renta and Pauline Trigere. At the time of his death in 1995, Frank Olive's company was still active and exhibited just as much exuberance as ever.

The Fashion Markers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris