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Meet The Storyteller: Hills Hats

11 Oct 2017
By Rhys Lawrence

Based in Wellington, Hills Hats is the leading hat manufacturer in New Zealand. Established in 1875, today they create premium hats for their own brand, as well as for high end designer labels across New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the USA. Hills Hats has a dedicated retail store in Petone and thanks to significant global demand, their overseas business is growing fast. In this blog, Hatman, Simon Smuts-Kennedy, delves into the Hills Hats story.

What’s the background to Hills Hats? 

Hills Hats was founded back in 1875 by Chas Hill, a man who believed in the perfect hat for each head. From his hatter’s shop in Wellington, Chas manufactured and sold his own hats, as well as stocking hats from many manufacturers from around the world including Stetson and Christy’s. Over the following decades, the hat range expanded rapidly into fashion, outdoor, uniform and berets. 

As a third generation textiler, I’m proud of the legacy of my father and grandfather, whom after making ties for the US Marines during WWII, started our family business. Given that military was once the catalyst of our business, it makes sense that we still design and make hats for New Zealand Defence, as well as Air New Zealand. 

Today, we carry on the tradition and craftsmanship of Chas Hill but now it is our turn to supply to high-end hat specialists around the world. We’ve always believed in competing on quality and after seeing a lot of cheap product flood the market, it’s clear that our opportunity lies in premium.

What’s the business doing now? 

Hills Hats is now a diverse manufacturer of specialty headwear, covering professional hats to party hats and everything in between. We believe that to cut through, you have to be different. If you can achieve that, your options are endless. 

We focus on perfecting our patterns to make sure they’re as good, if not better, than yesteryear. With a focus on sourcing the highest quality fabrics, a belief in creativity and also in traditional methods, we can walk into any hat store in the world and sell our products. Because of that, we’re on many specialist retailer’s shelves across Australia, Japan and the United States. 

Our relationship with kiwi bands like Fat Freddy’s Drop, Shapeshifter, The Nudge, Lordecho and Tiki Tane is also growing and growing, which gives us a great place to position ourselves within the market.

What does being from New Zealand mean for your business? 

The Hills Hat story is very much about collaboration, both in the way we design and make our unique hats, but also in the way we approach domestic and overseas markets. That collaboration is a strong Kiwi attribute and its one that our consumers, retailers and distributers appreciate. 

Since we’re further away, it’s really important for Kiwis to understand what different markets are looking for. We’ve been exporting to Japan for six years now and in our experience, the ‘Made in New Zealand’ aspect of our story has really opened doors there, as has our creativity. 

When it comes to overseas markets, quality and diversity are big advantages. For the Japanese, who love to dress up and stand out, our quirky style is a big win. For Australia, it’s the manufacturing that comes out of New Zealand. For the U.S., they were introduced to our quality outdoor range and once that was familiar, they became interested in our quirkier designs.

Where have you found the opportunities come from? 

I think it comes down to having a unique offering, building relationships and just getting in front of people. When I first approached JJ Hats in NY, I walked in with a quirky mask and funky hat. If I’d sent a catalogue, I probably wouldn’t have got an order. But the way I did it meant I walked out with an order and an ongoing relationship. In the same way, 

I knocked on the door of Ben Goorin about three years ago and said ‘I want to make for you’. Goorin have been hatters since 1895 and have recently started manufacturing in Newark, US. But after inviting Ben back to New Zealand and sharing our hat-making with him, we’ve gone on to launch a collab brand, ‘Uncharted’, that features hats from both factories in selected Goorin stores across America and specialist hat stores here in New Zealand as well as Australia. Being bold has helped us to enter the US market and forming relationships like this. It would have cost thousands and taken years.

What has NZ Story and Creative Collective meant for you? 

We’re really proud of the Creative Collective video. We’ve had over 6,000 views on Instagram and 1,200 on YouTube in under a week. NZ Defence are also sharing the video and so are Air NZ in the Hub at the airport. Perhaps best of all, retailers in our global markets are sharing our story with customers through their networks. 

For me personally, it was great to be able to share it with my 78-year-old father and our team. It’s massive for us, so it’s awesome for everyone to see and reflect on how far we’ve come. Giving our friends, partners, suppliers and customers content like this really grows our profile and leverages word of mouth. It also gives us a lot of credibility, both locally and globally. 

When I sent the video through to Three Wise Men who we’ve worked with in the past, the response I got back was, “This is incredible, let’s talk”. And that’s just one response of many.