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Hat shop pins hopes on new creations

Autistic artists' designs inspired by Gossip Girl
by: Ellen Spitaleri Xavier Barbera adjusts the veil on the festive headwear piece worn by his mother, Olimpia Dorn. He incorporates fabric, beads, crystals and other items into his designs.

It's cold, it's the holiday season and festive hats are flying off the shelves in Oregon City, home to two hat stores.

The newest, opening on Nov. 12, is Willow Designs by Xavier, a 19-year-old autistic man, who graduated from Oregon City High School last June. His fanciful creations, more hair accessory than hat, first caught the eye of Sandra Gillman, the owner of You Can Leave Your Hat On, a hat and accessories shop just off Main Street in downtown Oregon City.

'I knew the kid had talent, so I bought several. I see tons of hats, and I know his talent is going to take him somewhere,' said Gillman, who opened her store last summer.

Xavier Barbera chose the name Willow Designs because he just likes the word willow. His mother, Olimpia Dorn, added that her son really likes nature, and that explains his use of feathers, birds, butterflies and other nature-inspired materials to make his whimsical confections.

Most of the hair accessories Barbera makes begin with a plastic headband, which he wraps in fabric. And then, he said, 'I start doing something and it turns into something.'

It all began, he said, because his 23-year-old sister, Annamaria, started watching 'Gossip Girl' with her friends. Many of the women in that show wear decorative hair accessories, so Barbera made one for his sister to wear as she watched the show.

Then her friends wanted some, and then they wore them places, and many women that they met wanted to know where the hair accessories were available.

'Pretty soon Xavier took over the whole house,' Dorn said, which led in turn to opening the business.

Now Barbera has a shop with a work area, where he keeps his materials and builds the hair accessories.

'He takes a lot of pride in his work and is very meticulous,' Dorn said. 'He does everything by hand and is self-taught. He finishes every edge - he does everything with perfection.'

All the hair accessories are displayed in groups organized by color; some are on transparent head forms, while others are attached to metal trees or grids on the wall.

What Barbera likes best about having his own shop is simply being able to have space to make the hair accessories, and then seeing women try them on and look in the mirror.

'When someone is pleased with his work he likes that - he likes to make people happy,' Dorn said.

He has been creative all his life, she noted, adding that he chose to decorate the store with a nature motif.

'It's like a garden in here, and he makes the flowers,' Dorn said.

Appeal to all ages

The hair bands have a broad appeal, both Dorn and shop assistant Nicole Bell said.

'I'm going to a military ball, so I have to choose one to wear with my gown,' Bell said. 'My daughter, who is a senior at OCHS, chooses ones in school colors and wears them to events, and posts her photos on Facebook.'

Recently a grandmother came in to buy hair accessories for her granddaughters and ended up also buying three for herself.

'My neighbor, who is in her 80s, bought one in every color,' Dorn noted.

For the holiday season, Barbera has made sparkling white hair accessories, featuring snowflakes and snow white feathers. He plans to expand on the theme for bridal wear, Dorn said.

For those who prefer to wear red for Christmas, that color abounds in the shop; some of the headwear is decorated with Swarovski crystals, antique buttons, feathers, netting and even tiny red birds, which appear to rest on a nest of swirling tulle.

Both Bell and Dorn said that Barbera inspires them.

'I like his energy. I just sit and watch him make the headbands, and the designs just come to him - each one is unique,' Bell said.

Other parents of children with autism have asked her if their children have a future, and 'I say, 'Yes, but you have to support them,' ' Dorn said.

She has been told that her son probably has Asperger's Syndrome, but he has worked hard to overcome any disability, even taking as many regular classes in high school as possible.

'He is my inspiration,' Dorn said. 'He is very brave to open this business and put himself out there.'

As for the future, Barbera hopes to get a website up and running to showcase his designs, because, his mother said, 'He wants the world to wear these.'

Store owner brings famous designer hats to Oregon City

Sandra Gillman, owner of You Can Leave Your Hat On, a hat and accessories shop just off Main Street in downtown Oregon City, is a fan of Xavier Barbera's hair accessories; in fact, she owns six of them.

When she recently put on one of his holiday models, with cascading snowflakes and sparkles, she said, 'I felt like a princess. I put on my pearls and I felt so pretty.'

Gillman stocks different kinds of hats in her shop. Decorative felt hats and others made with winter fabrics promise comforting warmth in cold temperatures.

But the showstoppers in stock right now come from California designer Arturo Rios.

'I called him and talked with him and sent him photos of my shop,' she said.

Rios sent eight of his one-of-a-kind designs for her to display and sell.

It is unusual for a shop in Oregon City to have hats designed by a man who sells his millinery creations to the likes of Daisy Fuentes and Paris Hilton; his hats were also worn to the royal wedding this past summer, Gillman noted.

Her shop has drawn the attention of the editors of 'Hat Life,' a book she calls 'the bible' of the hat industry, and You Can Keep Your Hat On will be featured in the newest addition of the book.

She is happy to be in Oregon City, where the other business owners have referred customers to her shop, and even wear her hats in their own shops.

'This is a tiny shop, but there are always people in here,' Gillman said. 'People hear about me through word of mouth, and they come in and want to buy local. My goal for next year is to have everything in here made in America.'

Willow Designs by Xavier

1201 Washington St., Oregon City

503-793-9747

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Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

You Can Leave Your Hat On

212 Seventh St., Oregon City

503-723-0395

Hours: Tuesday through Friday,

11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.; closed on Sunday.