Lock & Co: Top hats & tales

Interview with Sue Simpson, MD of Lock & Co hatters.


Mayfair London, one of the most famous addresses in the world, is home to James Lock & Co, St James’s Street, one of the most famous hatters in the world; in fact, the tale goes that a piece of correspondence once arrived there safely, simply addressed; ‘The best hatters in the world, London’.

Dating back to the late 17th Century, family-run ‘Lock’s’ as it is commonly referred to (world-wide icons only ever need the singular name), has been the ‘go-to’ hatter for the last nigh-on 350 years, dressing the heads of the most iconic characters of the times; from Nelson & Wellington to Chaplin & Churchill, through to modern day figures from royalty to actors, rock-stars, sportsmen and other fashionistas!

Hat-wearing has undoubtedly changed over the centuries; there was once a time when everyone wore a hat when out-and-about, yet since the latter half of the 20th Century hat-wearing has been somewhat relegated to simply occasions, dismissing the obligatory baseball cap, which can hardly be counted as stylish headgear! Having said this, there is still a discerning hat-loving contingent within society, of which the numbers have been steadily growing in recent years, and because of this continued love affair with head-wear, all manners of hats from silk top hats, felt bowlers to straw panamas and tweed caps, in all conceivable styles, materials, colours and sizes, can be found at Lock & Co – straight off-the-peg or customised.  ‘Lock’s’ loyal following is varied, both young and old, classic and contemporary, British and global; the recent ‘Lock & Roll’ collection connects with a younger, more trend-sensitive clientele, and sits alongside the core collection for the classic fashion-conscious gentlemen.


A visit to the hallowed London address, to experience the heritage, the service – expert advice on style and size, a subsequent fitting within the regency-panelled fitting rooms, of course, taking ownership of your special hat – is a hat-lovers dream, and here, through a special interview with Sue Simpson, Managing Director of Lock & Co, we can gain a small taste of what the quintessential hatters is all about, and how a centuries-old family business has flourished and evolved to remain very much head (& shoulders) above the rest.

Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Lock & Co, please can you tell us about the company?

Lock & Co is predominantly a hatter, based at 6 St James’s Street in London. We have always been based here on St James’s Street, although we were originally located on the other side of the road, but moved to our current building in 1759.

We have been selling men’s hats for over 300 years and ladies hats for 25 years.  We are still family-owned, and as far as I’m aware we are the oldest hatter in the world and the 34th oldest family-owned business in the world.


Why are hats important?

Hats complete an outfit.  They distinguish a person’s style and allow people to make a statement about themselves. A lot more people want to wear headwear to complete a look and dress in a particular fashion, whether that is a hat or a cap.


Lock & Co has been in continuous family ownership for centuries. What were your personal reasons for joining the family business?

I joined Lock & Co because I had always liked the shop and quality of products sold and I thought I could bring my expertise from previous positions to help make a difference. I was really impressed with the family members who interviewed me, those from the Lock MacDonald and Stephenson families who share ownership of the business, as well as the Chairman. I liked the integrity of the way they do business and the way they treat their staff.


You have a vast range of stylish classic hats, including trilbies, fedoras, boaters and bowlers. However, your recent ‘Lock & Roll’ collection is connecting much more with a younger audience. Would you say Lock & Co is becoming more of a fashion brand these days, and less about old-school elegance?

No, certainly not. Our Lock & Roll collection is a separate range for the fashion-conscious gentleman who wants to see an ever-change range of hats and caps that they can coordinate with their other clothes, but the range is in addition to our classic collection, which rarely changes, apart from a few tweaks from time-to-time, whereas Lock & Roll changes every six months. The reason we did it as an addition is because we didn’t want to alienate our core customers.   It was really important to us that the products in the Lock & Roll range are of the same quality as those in the classic range.


Lock & Co has traditionally been known as a men’s hatwear company. Is that still true today? 

We are still known predominately for our Men’s hats, but our Ladies department is well established and has a very loyal following.

In fact, ladies hatware is the fastest growing part of the business. We have our in-house design team within our ladies millinery which is headed by Sylvia Fletcher, who designs everything for us exclusively.

We have three ladies ranges – ‘Couture Millinery’, which are exclusive model hats, made to order, then we have ‘Casual Hats’, which are hats for all seasons that customers can take away with them, all in classic colours, and finally we have ‘Hat-a-Porter’, which are ready-to-wear occasion hats for the winter and summer seasons. We have an extensive showroom on our first floor, which has just been refurbished to give our female customers the very best shopping experience.


Is there a typical Lock & Co customer?

Absolutely not, we serve customers from all walks of life, from royalty to the man on the street; for instance we have lots of taxi drivers buying hats. We certainly don’t just have wealthy customers; of course, we have people who come in and never ask for the price, but likewise we have customers who look on our website and save up for a hat they like.

Our customers include lots of film stars and celebrities but we will never reveal their names, as we are very discrete who we serve, and it would be an invasion of their privacy if we reveal who they are.   We only ever mention famous customers who are sadly no longer with us, such as Churchill and Nelson etc, and I think that is why people may think we are fusty, because we don’t mention any of current famous customers.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons why some people may be put off from visiting us, from feedback I’ve received from people, is they may be a tad intimidated, but in fact our staff couldn’t be more welcoming, and we give all of our customers the same level of friendly service.


Where are the hats made – for example, are they all made onsite, or is manufacturing carried out elsewhere? How do you ensure the quality of your hat production?

Most of our mens hats are made for us in Britain by a specialist hat manufacturer in Manchester, although most of our ladies hats are made here on site in our workroom, where we employ three full-time milliners and a designer. To make many of the mens hats – block hats such as panamas and felts – you need big industrial machinery which we certainly can’t fit in here.

With ladies hats we will only use one block to form the hat shape, but mens hats require different blocks for different sizes, which requires a lot more work and also storage space. For instance, our Chelsea hat, one of our fedoras, comes in eleven different sizes, so that would require eleven different blocks. We also do them in three different colours, so that would require thirty three items in stock for just one type of hat.


Re-blocks, re-trims and repairs for both mens and ladies hats are carried out on-site in the workroom.  Our flat caps used to be made here in the workroom until fairly recently, but there just wasn’t the room any more, and now they are made by our own cap maker off-site.


We try to get as many of our hats made in the UK as possible, probably 80%, but the remainder are made in mainland Europe. Ultimately we go where we can get the best quality for our customer. We don’t buy anything from the Far East though.

To ensure the highest quality, we only work with a limited number of specialist factories, and we visit them all at least once per year.  We employ a stock-keeper who checks the quality of every single item that comes into the building, as we are extremely particular about quality. The two things that we really pride ourselves on are the high levels of service, and the quality of our products.


By way of an insight into your work, could you briefly describe the process of crafting one of your hats that you make, such as one of your ladies model hats?

We start with the customer coming into the shop and discussing their requirements with our designer or a member of the millinery team. They then view and try on hats from the current range – Sylvia Fletcher our designer creates a complete new range every season.

The customer needs to decide on the specifics they are looking for, such as trim or colour, for instance. If the hat is for a wedding, and the customer is the mother of the bride, then it’s likely they will want the colour of the hat to match the rest of their outfit. We will then dye the fabrics to match the garment, and the customer may leave an item from the outfit with us so we can get an exact match, such as a shoe. Depending on the complexity of the colour, this can take a short or long time.

The hard work of making the hat can then begin. The Sinamay is cut into the appropriate sizes and different numbers of layers are used, depending on the style and structure of the hat. It is then stretched over the wooden block and pinned and steamed into the required shape.


Once the structure of the hat has been formed, it then needs to have the band, and lining fitted and the all-important trim created and attached.


Once finished, it will be approved by the designer or creative director ready for the customer to try it on.  This is a long and skilled process, not just in designing the hat, but creating the perfect block for the designs, getting the colour match perfect, and ensuring the hat is in perfect balance with the customers face and shape.  We set exceptionally high standards.


The fashion for wearing hats declined after the 1950s, but there has been a resurgence in recent years. What do you put this resurgence down to?

They are certainly becoming more fashionable which I think is largely down to the fact that a lot of sportspeople, celebrities and musicians are pictured in them and younger people want to emulate their look.  Also, it’s in part driven by health reasons to keep sun off the head due to the risk of skin cancer – in Australia there is a phrase ‘slip-slop-slap’ – ‘slip on a shirt, slop on the sunscreen and slap on a hat’, part of a sun protection campaign promoting the health benefits of wearing a hat. The resurgence is definitely from younger generation but health is certainly a factor.


With such an array of hats on offer, how do you guide customers and advise them on a particular choice of hat that is suitable for their purpose and ensure they are the correct size?

First, we measure the customer when they come into the shop and find out the size of their head.

Second, the style of hat needs to be selected, and we need to take into consideration the particular season, what clothes the customer wants to wear with the hat, and what they want the hat to do for them.

We then need to look at the build of the person and shape of face, as this affects the choice and style of hat, which comes down to experience and skill of staff and their expertise, to ensure the hat – the height of crown and size of brim, for instance – is in proportion to their shape. We pride ourselves on giving the best advice on choice of hat.

We take measurements using a tape measure, but for hard hats, such as a top hat or bowler hat – or “Coke” using its correct name – we use a device called a conformateur to measure the size of hat required.


You would be amazed how many men wearing top hats at Ascot, for example, will be wearing hats that are three sizes out, as some shops just fit the front and back, but not the sides, and you could fit a hand inside the gaps on the sides.


We use the conformateur to ensure the perfect fit, which is a 150 year-old French device that looks like a metal hat that sits on top of the person’s head and has 48 flexible arms which when the apparatus is pushed down, tiny calibrating pins pierce a piece of paper on the top of the device replicating the exact shape of the head. The paper outline is then used to adjust an adjustable blocking device which is used to form the shape of the hat after being heated with steam to give the exact shape of hat required.


Why has Lock & Co endured for so long, when other hatters haven’t fared so well in the face of changing fashions in recent decades?

There used to be five hatters on St James’s Street alone, and now we are the only one remaining, and that is certainly indicative of the change in fashions. As to why we have survived, I think the strength of leadership by the family owners is the main reason. Lock & Co has certainly been through some tough times due to changes in hat wearing fashions, particularly at the end of the last century, but the tough decisions taken by the family have enabled the company to prosper in the last 15-20 years, enabling it to go from strength-to-strength.  Also, I think owning our own premises has helped; we used to rent the premises initially up until the 1920s, which is when we bought the freehold. This was one of the best decisions ever made by Lock & Co.


What’s next for Lock & Co; are we going to see collaborations with other designers, opening of international stores, greater hat ranges?

We don’t have any plans for opening international stores, but we do want to expand our wholesale business and push that further into mainland Europe and the USA. We have renewed a relationship with Brooks Brothers in the USA, which came to an end when Brooks Brothers was bought by Marks & Spencer, and this is going very well now. In fact our largest customer base outside the UK is the USA; they love the quality of our hats, the service and the history of our shop. We get many American visitors who visit the shop as one of their first ports of call when arriving in London, many of whom have visited before and request to be dealt with by the same member of staff who served them during a previous visit.

We are also open to further collaborations with designers. We have already collaborated with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Swagger and A Bathing Ape, and provided the fit between us is right and complementary, then we will certainly look at doing more of these.


Finally, for those people who haven’t worn a hat before but are considering it, can you give any tips for choosing a hat for the first time?

Consider what you want to use it for – is it to keep the sun off your head, or rain, and think about what you want to wear it with. Also consider your build – if you’re a tall man and broad shouldered, for instance, you can wear a wider brimmed hat and have a fuller shaped trim, whereas if you are short and slight, then a narrower brimmed hat, or narrower style cap, would be better.


With ladies, if it’s a special occasion hat, then it’s much more complicated and that’s why customers come to visit Lock & Co so our staff can give them specific advice; our millinery team are great at being able to pick the right hat for the right customer.  We also have a fitting room, so that ladies can bring their outfits with them to try on hats with outfits.

Thanks to Sue Simpson for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions.  All images © Lock & Co.


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