Dressing for Derby

Kentucky Derby hat designers
a hit with the horse crowd in spring

Nobles, Swansey design of the Derby Museum

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

BUCKNER, Ky. (April 2007) – Springtime in Kentucky means foaling mares, greening meadows and, of course, a fashionable Derby hat. When it comes to selecting the perfect accents to adorn a hat, CK Nobles has just the right touch.

Sheila Nobles and Kevin Swansey

Photo provided

Sheila Nobles (left) and Kevin Swansey
(right) are partners in CK Nobles,
popular for its Derby hat designs.

CK Nobles is a partnership between Sheila Nobles and Kevin Swansey. For the last six years, this pair has been crafting unique Derby hats in Nobel’s home studio in their spare time.
Nobles and Swansey first met in high school years ago, but both went on to separate careers. Nobles now works for BB&T Bank and has worked in other artistic mediums in the past. Swansey is a special events coordinator for Hospice with a background in theatre and merchandising.
They became re-acquainted 20 years later and decided to forge a partnership when they learned the Kentucky Derby Museum was looking for hat designers.
For the last six years, Nobles and Swansey have been the only Derby hat designers for the museum. They make many custom designed hats as well, with Nobles often holding trunk shows at her home.
“The Derby Museum has opened many doors for us,” said Nobles. They have participated in many special functions, such as the Kentucky Derby Festival’s Fillies Fashion Show, and were even judges in last year’s Derby Museum hat contest.
The pair will share their expertise from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on April 28 at the eighth annual “What’s Your Style” Scholarship Fundraiser presented by the Business and Professional Women of Oldham County. Held at the Kavanaugh Life Enrichment Center in Crestwood, fashions will range from casual to up-scale, with many Oldham County businesses participating.
CK Nobles will provide a fashion show and talk on wearing the proper hat. They are a big draw for our show, said BPW scholarship chair Amy Armitage. “They really step it up.”
There are many designers who work in only one genre, said Armitage. “CK Nobles is very original. They cover a wide variety of colors and styles. They can make anything for any woman.”

Nobles Hats

Photo provided

C.K. Nobles' hats come in all
shapes, sizes and colors.

“Most people can wear a hat,” said Nobles, “but they don’t pick the right hat.” Many times before the Kentucky Derby, clientele will come to them with the outfit they plan to wear to the Derby, and Nobles and Swansey will coordinate a hat for just the right look.
The pair will often design hats together, complementing each other’s style. “We will look at the same hat with two totally different ideas,” said Nobles.
“I love hats,” said Nobles, 50. She grew up in Louisville, where her uncle was a trainer at Churchill Downs. Nobles has lived in Oldham County for more than 20 years.
When considering what inspires the pair, Swansey said, “It could be anything.” Shape and color are big influences, but a flaw in the brim of a hat once inspired Swansey.
Knowing that he had to disguise the flaw, he added a big bow and feathers, creating the distinctive look they have become known for. This hat was later modeled in “Today’s Woman” magazine.
CK Nobles embellishes its hats with different materials that may include beads, florals, expensive fabrics like satin and silk, or feathers. It’s always exciting to Nobles to see a “woman walk down the track in your hat,” she said.
CK Nobles often contributes to charities, such as Hats for Hope, which collects money for breast cancer. At last year’s event, Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynn, signed a hat that was auctioned for charity.
For Swansey, designing Derby hats “is my therapy.” The thing that he most enjoys about his creations is “watching someone’s reaction to the hats.”
Supply and demand for this seasonal commodity dictates how many hours a week Nobles and Swansey put into their craft. It’s more of a hobby for Swansey, 50, who majored in theatre at the University of Louisville. He also earned an associate degree in retail merchandising from Watterson College.
Prior to teaming with Nobles, Swansey had a long career making hats for theatre groups in the Louisville area. Eighteen years ago, while performing for the Music Theatre of Louisville, Swansey would often find himself with an hour and a half on his hands after leaving work at 5:30 and before beginning theater rehearsals at 7 p.m.
To pass time, he hung out in the costume room (the only room with air conditioning). He learned how to make hats and head pieces, once creating more than 50 hats for a production of “Hello, Dolly.”
Nothing can compare to the Kentucky Derby, which is the “premier hat event,” said Nobles. Creating Derby hats has provided Nobles and Swansey with “the opportunity to work with people in Louisville, and work with people all over the world,” she said.

• CK Nobles will be featured in the upcoming official Derby Magazine, which will be on stands April 9. To contact Nobles, call (502) 797-0003. For more information on the BPW’s Style Show contact Armitage at (502) 254-0522 or visit: www.bpwoldhamco.org.

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