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Leave it On

Vanner Hats founder Courtney Ellzey on military wives, women empowering women, and hats as a conduit to tell people’s stories.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

In the ethereal glare of late-afternoon Ojai, model Kassidi Batt dons a chocolate-colored leather lid called “The Garrison.”

Courtney Ellzey is a fashionista, a photographer, a designer, and a mother of two. She’s also the keeper of a gypsy spirit who recently decided to channel her “inner creative soul” by designing and importing handmade hats from Ecuador.

She named her company Vanner Hats after the Gypsy horse, first used in the mid-1800s by nomads pulling their vardos around the British Isles. But her roots are pure Texan, having grown up in the panhandle, in a small town of just 7,000.

A military wife, Courtney ended up in California some 20 years ago, and this is where she found a kindred spirit in the women around her—women who, as she puts it, “represent the true essence of strength, compassion, and integrity.”

We met with the now 43-year-old beauty to discuss her Ventura-based hat business, and to learn more about the Navy Seal wives who represent it as Vanner Ambassadors.

LESLIE A. WESTBROOK: You’ve said that hats act as “a conduit to tell people’s stories.” So what’s yours?
COURTNEY Ellzey: Oh, boy. Let me think about that one. Okay, here goes. For as long as I can remember, I have had this burning desire and obsession to be creative. If I am not creating, I am studying those who are creative and creating.

My story begins with my Grandmama LZ, who was a free gypsy spirit. Her spirit seems to be at the essence of Vanner Hats. She was an artist, a writer, a poet, a Southern Belle-turned-chic-cowgirl, a mother to five, a feminist, a philanthropist, and an advocate for Hispanic-U. S. relations in the panhandle of Texas. She was also a ranch hand and a seeker of knowledge. A true pioneer.

So, I’m a gypsy from the Texas panhandle, with wanderlust and a burning desire to create, collaborate, travel, be inspired, and inspire.

LAW: Why hats?
CE: I would like to be part of making the world a happier place, one “crown” at a time. What better way to connect and adorn those on their journey than with a crown? People feel different when they place a hat on their head.

I am a Texan and a country girl at heart.
I grew up with hats. My family all wore cowboy hats. My mother adorned me with bonnets, bandanas, and Easter hats. I got into hats when I entered college, and it was a natural progression from there. An outfit didn’t quite seem complete until I graced it with a hat. Perhaps it is the introvert in me that prefers to move through the day somewhat inconspicuously, without too much exposure.

My hats are imported from Ecuador, from a woman entrepreneur who is also about empowering women and utilizing sustainable products. These things are extremely important to me.

My long-term plan is to learn how to design and make a handmade hat line. But, motherhood only allows for so much at the moment: I have two children and they come first.

LAW: Do you have a particular favorite?
CE: I have had a cab driver’s hat since the birth of my son, a green corduroy Kangol that is now is a dingy brownish color with holes in it. It has become an appendage; everyone knows that I am to be cremated with that hat. I hope to replicate it for Vanner.

LAW: Tell us about your Vanner Ambassadors.
CE: My business means more to me than simply looking good in a hat and making hat sales, so I created Vanner Ambassadors. From the beginning, Vanner Ambassadors is something that I decided needed to be an integral part of my business plan. An Ambassador can be a group or an individual with a story that inspires and that people can relate to.
I want to share people’s stories and triumphs in life as a way of giving back. I also photograph them and share their stories on my website. The first Vanner Ambassadors are a group of ten Navy Seal wives who I bonded with and who inspire me. Only other women who have lived that life can relate. This is a very significant part of me, as my first husband was a Navy Seal.

The next Vanner Ambassador will be Shaney Jo Darden, who founded the nonprofit Keep A Breast Foundation and educates people about breast cancer awareness. She is an amazing human and I can’t wait to share her remarkable story.

The ambassadors can also be men, children… anyone who has a powerful story to tell and who is doing great things to make the world a better place. It is extremely important to me that Vanner stands for something more than just the hats.

LAW: Do you wear a hat everyday?
CE: Pretty much. I am a low maintenance hair girl and I don’t want to be bothered by my hair, but I don’t want to cut it off either.

LAW: Any special hat tips?
CE: People who are not hat people always say that they do not look good in hats.
This is not true. Everyone looks good in a hat! It’s just a matter of choosing the right style and size, but most importantly feeling comfortable and confident enough to walk out of the house wearing one and owning it.

For dressier, more substantial hats, I recommend storing them in a hatbox.
For the hat that you would like to wear to the horse barn, I say throw caution to the wind and not fret about it. Wear it, abuse it… don’t let it own you.

LAW: Who are your favorite fashion designers or icons?
CE: There are so many talented designers out there. Can I just say that I have a newfound respect for fashion designers? There is so much that goes into designing, production, shows, marketing… That being said, I would say my Top 10 favorites are Ralph Lauren,
Yohji Yamamoto,
Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein,
Donna Karan,
Diane Von Furstenberg, Roberto Cavalli,
Tom Ford,
Esteban Cortazar, and Angie Scott.

LAW: What inspires you?
CE: Number one? My children. Other people—human connections. And lately I am really into culinary inspiration. Have you ever seen [the Netflix documentary] Chef’s Table? Oh, man! Architecture, dance, fashion, music, travel, interior design, photography, collaborations… I am completely obsessed with great fashion and architecture magazines. One of my favorite things to do is go into bookstores. One day, I will design a home built around all of my books and magazines.

LAW: One of my favorite songs is Joe Cocker’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Are you familiar with it?
CE: (Laughing) That’s from the movie 9 ½ Weeks, with Kim Basinger. I was in the eighth grade then, and that scene with her and her hat put that song on the map. I wanted to be her!

LAW: Do you leave your hat on?
CE: Sometimes hat on, sometimes hat off…

Vanner Hats are sold locally at Julia Rose & Company
335 E. Ojai Avenue, Ojai.
To learn more about the company and its Ambassadors, visit vannerhats.com.

From mountains to sea, “The Astaire,” shown at Emma Wood State Beach, Ventura. This silver/smoke-colored, wool felt model features a stylish tagua button, made from the seed of a tropical palm.
Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel, with art direction from Petecia Le Fawnhawk.

Vanner Hats founder Courtney Ellzey wearing “The Dun.”

03-01-2016

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