Holy headwear, it's Hatman

DAVE BURGESS
Last updated 05:00 04/08/2014
Simon Smuts-Kennedy
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ
IF THE HAT FITS: Simon Smuts-Kennedy’s long-established Petone company has become a global player.

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If you ever catch a glimpse of Hatman, you could be forgiven for asking "who was that masked man?"

Behind the mask is Hills Hats owner Simon Smuts-Kennedy, who is using his Hatman persona to take quality products manufactured in Petone to some of the biggest markets in the world.

"I turn up to appointments with this on to virtually everyone that I'm doing business with . . . I claimed the name Hatman and live it."

The company's stock in trade is making hats for corporates and government organisations such as the New Zealand Defence Force. Currently it is busy making replicas of World War I hats for centenary celebrations.

A request has just come in to make a replica Air New Zealand hat as worn by stewardesses - that's flight attendants in today's PC world - in the 1970s.

This ability to recreate headwear from the past saw Hill's make hats for New York scenes in Sir Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong.

Up to 6000 hats a month are made in the factory.

But the catalogue consists of more than military and corporate hats. The company is one of the few globally to make products across the spectrum, from uniform, outdoors, and formal hats right through to high fashion.

Established in 1875, the company forged a reputation for making fine hats, as well as importing them.

Time-honoured methods - machinists on solid-looking sewing machines, gas-fired moulds to steam hats into shape, and hand attached ribbons - are still being used today. They give the factory a distinct look of yesteryear.

Smuts-Kennedy said that over the past 139 years the company had gone from being an importer to an exporter of fine hats. "We've done all the hard work."

He said his company is all about being nimble, using the highest-quality material, and being able to cater to smaller markets which gave it a competitive edge.

In the US, for instance, Hills Hats has been picked up by the Village Hat Shop to make that company's in-house brand.

"I asked them straight up whether . . . we should put more under the Hill's label because people love Hills of New Zealand which is what we trade as overseas."

Hills also make hats for Scottish outfit Johnstons of Elgin, established in 1797, who are reputed to have the finest cashmere wool in the world.

"People who know textiles know this brand. They actually wanted us to put our label inside with their own, which is a huge honour in that they want to piggy back on the fact that their hats are made by Hills."

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Unlike many exporters, Smuts-Kennedy is not concerned about the high Kiwi dollar.

He said that on a recent trip to see US-based Goorin Bros, price wasn't mentioned once.

"I just opened my [sample] bags and they couldn't believe the quality."

Closer to home, Hills and Havana Coffee Works have collaborated to recycle hessian coffee sacks from around the world to be made into a range of hand-crafted hats for coffee lovers.

And Wellington band Fat Freddy's Drop have all their hats made at Hills.

"They are great to work with and great ambassadors for our product."

With so many irons in the fire, it really should be a case of hats off to the Hatman and his team of 26 workers.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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