Written by Sally Ibarra Barceló
Photography by Jon Macapodi
The Florida-raised husband-and-wife duo, Virginia “Gigi” Burris and Evan O’Hara are growing their fashion brands in New York City with deep connections to Lakeland, both personally and professionally.
In a world of on-demand conveniences and the notion that faster is better, “craftsmanship” evokes the sense of a bygone era — artisans whose rich skills are passed down from one generation to the next. These techniques are the kind that truly stand the test of time, producing quality goods by skilled tradesmen and women who hone their craft by hand via the old-school methods.
Craftsmen and women in the fashion industry, such as Gigi Burris, a milliner, and Evan O’Hara, a leatherworker, are inspired by the beauty in specialty materials, outstanding precision, attention to detail, and remarkable finishes all created by complex techniques.
Burris and O’Hara met in New York City, where they both studied fashion: She, a sixth-generation Floridian, grew up in Lakeland and graduated from Lakeland High School. He grew up in Sarasota.
Vereda — O’Hara’s luxury line of leathers and garments — retail at Bergdorf and Goodman in New York City, in addition to the atelier’s bespoke orders which cater to a private client base, working directly with the client on custom silhouettes and requests.
Burris was honored as one of Forbes 30 under 30 Art and Style List in 2013 and was a CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund Finalist in 2014. She was nominated for a CFDA Accessories award in 2016 and has garnered a rapidly growing celebrity following, including Taylor Swift, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Bella Hadid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kourtney Kardashian, and Madonna, to name just a few.
A LAKELANDER IN NYC
While attending Lakeland High School, Burris attended a summer program for rising juniors and seniors where she experienced first-hand what it would be like to attend Parsons School of Design and live in New York City. Following high school graduation, Burris attended Parsons School of Design in New York City and studied abroad in Paris.
During her time in Paris, Burris visited the old world mercerie (haberdashery) shops which piqued her interest in millinery. “I fell in love with the idea of craft as opposed to the seasonal fashion cycle. I fell in love with the integrity of “making” and how well respected the concept is in Paris, including the beautiful shops that carry these vintage materials. There was just such a reverence for couture quality there,” says Burris.
After returning to New York City, she was inspired to direct her focus toward high-end, handmade items; therefore, she enrolled in a millinery course at Parsons where she studied under couture milliner Leah Chalfen and then apprenticed with Chalfen in her personal studio. In her final year at Parsons, upon completing her thesis, Burris was nominated for the “Designer of the Year Award.”
It was 2009 and difficult to find a job, so Burris worked as a freelance stylist and spent time creating for Gigi Burris Millinery on the side. “I had some amazing press placements and works doing private commissions for stylists,” she says.
Burris officially launched Gigi Burris Millinery in 2012, a couture millinery brand using the most luxurious materials sourced worldwide. “Each of my pieces is hand-blocked in New York City with steam and rope; every hair accessory is handcrafted from start to finish in my studio or with a sewer offsite. We have made the decision to really invest in our local economy. Slow-craft-focused production is a core value and something we’re very proud to not have wavered on,” says Burris.
“We have made the decision to really invest in our local economy. Slow-craft focused production is a core value and something we’re very proud to not have wavered on.” – Gigi Burris
Since the launch of Gigi Burris Millinery and her collections, Burris has also collaborated with reputable brands such as Oscar de La Renta, Disney, Star Wars, and W Hotels, to name a few.
“Growing up in Central Florida, Disney is a big part of your childhood and young adulthood. Collaborating on a high-end partnership with them was very special and exciting,” says Burris.
The Gigi Burris Millinery x Disney collections feature classic silhouettes with iconic color palettes and a variety of partnerships which include a Minnie Mouse collection, a Star Wars micro capsule luxury collection, and a Disney collection sold at the Orlando Four Seasons Resort’s designer shop.
In 2015, Burris and O’Hara visited Lakeland where O’Hara asked Burris’ father to take him alligator hunting, an activity encouraged in Florida to control the alligator population. O’Hara noticed that the skins of the hunted alligator were going to waste, unused.
“I technically started the [Vereda] brand that year, since processing alligator skins takes about one to two years before you can actually dye it and use it as leather. It’s not something that happens quickly,” say O’Hara. “The process is very fragile, from skinning the alligator to salting it in order to preserve it, every step is extremely important and delicate. If anything goes wrong, the skin becomes unusable.”
In 2017, O’Hara officially founded Vereda, a brand that produces luxury leathers and garments from alligator skin, entirely made in the United States and hand-dyed in a wide range of colors. Wild American alligator skins are highly sought after for their luxurious natural beauty and timeless feel.
“Vereda is one of the only remaining independent alligator skin operations to work vertically and is proud to produce a luxury line of leathers and garments.”
– Evan O’Hara
“Each of our sustainable and humanely harvested wild American alligator skins are harvested in Lakeland by either myself or my hunting partners. Vereda is one of the only remaining independent alligator skin operations to work vertically and is proud to produce a luxury line of leathers and garments,” says O’Hara.
Vereda’s mission is to craft the most exquisite product in the most environmentally harmonious manner, utilizing only sustainable wild skins. With over one million alligators inhabiting Florida, each alligator skin procured by Vereda is humanely harvested for its meat, not solely for its hide.
In addition, Vereda has recently launched a contracting service for fellow alligator hunters, with tanned or raw leathers ready for customization. From jackets and couture garments for men and women to decorative pillows, handbags, and furniture pieces, these are all within Vereda’s scope of work, offering a range of custom colors and hand-painted patina finishes.
THE DYNAMIC DUO
The husband-and-wife team has found success in the fashion industry with core values that anchor both Vereda and Gigi Burris Millinery. Devoted to producing American-made products that are sustainable and maintaining true integrity to craftsmanship; their brands continue to leave a mark in the fashion industry.
Today, situated on the fifth floor of a building on Canal Street in New York City’s Chinatown, the creative space — large, light-filled with character — is where the couple shares a design studio to run both their brands.
“We love collaborating and working out of the same space, problem-solving together,” says Burris.
“We’ve also created unique opportunities and products that combine both of our brands and offerings, ”adds O’Hara.
From custom alligator leather hats to beautiful, hand-sculpted alligator flowers, opportunities to combine their craft are special and give customers a plethora of options to customize one-of-a-kind pieces they will cherish forever.