Behind the Scenes: Hills Hats

As Wellingtonians, we’re lucky in a number of ways.  We have some of the best eating in the country, all within a compact and walkable city.  We have a swimming beach practically in the heart of the CBD.  We live with creative and clever people, even if we are lowly securities lawyers.  But among all of these treasures, hidden away, we have Hills Hats.  

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Just across the bay, in beautiful Petone, is a world class hat manufacturer…that’s right, they export across the world, and into some of the most prestigious hat shops around the world.  They also have a showroom and shop in their Petone factory and that, my friends, is why we are so spoiled.  Now, I’m extra specially spoiled, because I got to show up on a particularly miserable Saturday morning and spend two and a half glorious hours looking at and touching (almost) everything, talking to all the lovely Hills Hats staff, and making “oooooh!” sounds at various terrifying machines as they blew steam everywhere (that’s why I could only touch almost everything.  Some things will take off a finger if you’re not being bloody careful).  Simon was incredibly generous with his time and answered my many silly questions and volunteered so many things he thought I would find helpful, and was just generally a delight. 

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The Hills Hats factory is much larger than I had anticipated (because my anticipation was based on knowing nothing about hat manufacturing), but once you understand the range that Hills Hats produces, the big space makes sense.  There’s a sewing room, where a group of very talented and speedy women whip brims onto the fabric hats like it’s no big thing.  Many of the Hills Hats team have been working in manufacturing for decades, and that’s probably why they can do their incredibly fiddly jobs about 50 times faster than I can do any single task I can think of.  Then there’s the huge table where fabrics are cut – again, with speed and adeptness despite the many layers of fabric being sliced in one go – and spaces about 10 times larger than my apartment’s living area where various forms of hat forming and moulding takes place.  Plus: shelves and shelves of beautiful hats.  So, so many hats.

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I learn the same lessons again and again with this blog, and this visit to Hills Hats reminded me AGAIN that making fashion items is, in fact, a very tricky and clever thing to do.  Hats do not, as it turns out, just turn up fully formed via magic when you need them.  Even the simplest hat is a labour intensive act, and it’s fair to say that Hills Hats are not restraining themselves to the simplest of hats.  But let’s stay with those more simple hats for now.  A straw hat – well, first we need to grow and harvest the raw material.  We need to treat that material, then weave a simple hat shape.  That shape gets shipped to someone else, who might sew in the brim.  Then a very nice man at Hills Hats will shear off the excess from the brim with some terrifying scissors.  After that it gets molded in one of those steam-breathing machines, compressed with heat to make it the shape it needs to be, before it’s dried not once, but twice.  Then, and only then, is it ribbon time.  And that’s why hats are spendy and why it’s weird that you can buy a straw hat for $20. 

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However, as I say, Hills Hats isn’t just about your beautiful straw boaters and fedoras.  Oh no.  If you can dream a hat, Hills Hats can make it and their custom work made me feel feelings.  Imagine a shipment of vintage kimono being turned into fabulous hats for a commission with hatenkohro, a “Metal x Trad performance band from Japan!” (in a project called, of course, Kimono Kollab).  Even in their ready to wear work, the standard is unbelievably high – they make a patchwork of tweed that’s so well put together that it practically feels like a smooth fabric.  For someone who can tack up a hem in an emergency and replace buttons with some skill, I was overwhelmed by the love and care that the team demonstrates as a matter of course.  And, add to that, they have an environmental side as well, via their collaboration with Havana AND they make all the uniform hats you could ever imagine, including very fun (and tall) marching hats.  If you’re in the Police: congrats, you’re most likely wearing a Hills Hats hat.

 One of the Hatmanaway hats, this particular number is made from cork that has been dyed and then flocked, and is very very fancy.  Worth visiting the showroom just to see this display of magnificent work.

One of the Hatmanaway hats, this particular number is made from cork that has been dyed and then flocked, and is very very fancy. Worth visiting the showroom just to see this display of magnificent work.

Hills Hats also import hats that are made overseas, including in Asia.  The thing I love about this is that it reflects an understanding of a wider customer need (i.e. we’re not all able to find $200 for a hat) but it also means you can feel confident about where that hat is coming from.  There’s no way Simon would allow a substandard hat to be sold, and his knowledge of the people who he deals with in Taiwan (for example) demonstrates that he really knows them, and knows what they’re about.  His buying trips to Hong Kong for fabrics and what I will call fixings (so many gorgeous buttons) are informed by his wide range of customers too – because as hats have made a comeback into everyday life in recent years, the population of who buys hats has diversified and deepened.  The additional labels and relationships that Hills Hats has means that all of those customers can have access to a great quality hat, with a guilt-free conscience.

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I understand as an adult woman that sun smartness is key to life in the Antipodes, but I’m yet to find a hat that I do not deeply hate.  I have quite a large head for a short lady (literally, size L; quite often an XL), I have short hair so I can’t balance the brim of a hat with a volume of hair, and my ears stick out a wee bit and I’m never sure what to do with them vis a vis the hat band.  On the other hand, I think hats are frigging rad and I felt quite sure that if I could just find one hat – my gateway hat, if you will – I’d be away and it would just be a matter of time until I’d have a robust collection of hats to wear year round.  I was sure that a boater was the way forward, because let’s face it, I basically have the same haircut as a young man at Eton in the early part of the 21st century (albeit a bit too long from time to time when I am lazy about haircuts).  Girl, I was dead wrong.  Turns out a boater just makes me look like a triangle because I have a small ladies’ jaw (or so it seemed in a boater).  Instead, a style that wrapped around my head was the ticket which means, I am here to share, that the best style for me is the “Blossom” hat of the 90s.

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I did not take a home a Blossom hat but I did take home one option to try out in the coming months (and great news, I can wear it in two styles!).  Stay tuned next week to see what I bought, and in the meantime I really encourage you to consider a wee visit to Hills Hats in November (be it online or IRL) – Simon says there will be more straws coming through in the next few weeks, but there are boaters now and I know one of you will look ace in one on my behalf!

This didn’t fit into the post but it’s important to know: there’s also a doggo at Hills Hats called Shiloh and she is a very good girl. Many pats were provided, and in return I was thoroughly licked. I’m not saying it was the highlight of the entire visit but I’m not not saying it was the highlight, y’know?

Thanks to Daniil for coming along and taking many pictures while I usefully stood around staring at things and going “look at that!” and almost entirely forgetting I own a camera. Most of these photos are his. As you will see from his Instagram, he is much better at the photoing than me.