You've got to take your hat off to Simon Smuts-Kennedy, the Wellington man keeping headwear fashionably relevent around the world.
It's true not all superheros wear capes. This one wears hats.
Hatman, aka Simon Smuts-Kennedy, is a Wellington superhero known around the globe not just for his outrageous suits — always complete with matching mask and topper — but for the quality and distinct style of the hats produced in his Wellington factory.
As the third generation in a line of textile manufacturers, Smuts-Kennedy says making hats was in his blood. "I've grown up with fabric on the table," he says.
Twenty years ago he had a ski shop in Ohakune, "which was just in time for the [Ruapehu] eruptions — it was a bit of a disaster."
At the same time, in Masterton, his father closed the tie factory founded by his own father during World War II but saw potential in a struggling Wellington business called Hills Hats.
"Hills got itself in trouble twice in as many years and Dad basically came and saved it," says Smuts-Kennedy. "And in doing that he called me and said, 'Look, you're going nowhere fast, would you like to come and join me in becoming a headwear manufacturer?' The whole thing was so exciting that we packed up our young family and moved straight back to Wellington."
Hills was workwear and uniform-oriented at the time. Making headwear for the likes of Air New Zealand, the police and the army is still their bread and butter but since the arrival of Smuts-Kennedy junior, Hills has developed a growing global reputation for high-quality fashion hats.
"When we first got involved, Hills used to have a 40ft container followed by a 20ft container of cut-and-sew hats made in China. Now we only have one hat that's made in China like that, otherwise everything is made in New Zealand," he says.
"As soon as we jumped into this new adventure, we were subbing out polywools for pure-English tweed and going into cottons and linens of higher calibre. So there's a big emphasis on very high-end, fashionable product."
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Hills Hats are worn by New Zealand musicians from Fat Freddy's Drop and Ladi6 to Shapeshifter, Rhombus and Tiki Taane. A collaboration between Hills and Goorin Bros in the United States led to Lady Gaga stepping out in hats with Kiwi connections — berets in metallic and yellow leather from the two brands' joint capsule collection, "Uncharted".
They're big on collaborations — locally Hills have made hats with Kate Sylvester, Miss Crabb and Otsu Magic and are currently sampling for Twenty-seven Names.
Hills' fashion offering is unique, combining outside-the-box thinking, clever design, expert manufacture and the capacity to produce small runs. The possibilities for various shapes, silhouettes and materials are endless. "We're doing things from the finest lambswool out of the UK through to cork, through to coffee sacks, which is a huge product for us that we do with Havana Coffee Works," says Smuts-Kennedy.
There are hats made from vintage kimonos, bright orange snakeskin, faux fur, gold leather, tapa cloth.
There's even a beer, The Hatman double IPA, brewed by Fortune Favours — because that's what people do in Wellington. "They came to us and just wanted merchandise but then fell in love with the factory and the whole concept immediately. As part of what they do, they want to come up with new ideas and new products, so they went right to the high end and this is the biggest and most expensive beer they've ever made."
So how does a small hat factory in a small city in a small country make such a name for itself? In part, it comes down to Hatman. Whether he's wearing his costume or not, Smuts-Kennedy's tenacity and belief in his product has got him through doors that are usually closed.
"First I just knocked on the doors of hat specialist stores - who at that stage weren't overly entertained with what we were doing - but now we would probably have the majority share of all the places that I go to, in certain products," he says.
"And then I ventured into the United States, where we're now working with some big hat store names as well as brands and also Japan, where we're with a group called CA4LA. They have beautiful stores right throughout Japan and our product is pretty cherished over there — it's unique, they can order quirky bits and pieces that they can't get from anyone else.
"Straight away they could see our point of difference, that we were prepared to do small boutique runs, that the fabrics we were using were very different.
"A lot of it comes from people wondering what this nutter Hatman is, but at the same time it's all about the product as well, it really has to be the best that is available. Now we have a steady programme where a lot of the time they're desperate to place orders with us before I can even get there, which is pretty amazing."
Hatman first arrived on the scene seven years ago when Hills won the contract for the New South Wales Police. "I was flying into Australia continuously, every three months and because I was flying so much, I started to call myself Hatman a little bit. Then one day I walked into the Strand Arcade in Sydney with a mask and a top hat and they just thought it was hilarious.
"That character was pretty risque to start with, particularly since we do Air New Zealand, the police, the army and so on, so it could have gone one way or the other and they could have thought, 'Who are we dealing with?' But it has basically gone in totally the other direction.
"Even with our international customers, I think now if I walked into JJ Hat Center in New York in the suit with the hat and the mask it's a bit nerve-racking but I've sort of set the pace now and have to carry on with it. But they just love it, the entire staff, there might be 10 of them inside the store coming around and having a look."
Smuts-Kennedy says he owns about 10 hats at any one time.
"I'll wear a hat — I want to make sure it fits well, that it's comfortable, that it's durable — and then I'll normally give them away. Someone says 'I love that hat' and I'll be, 'Okay, it's yours,' which is a fantastic thing to be able to do."
He says putting on a hat is "life-changing in some ways, which is pretty rich, but that's coming from Hatman! It's an incredibly personal product. It becomes someone's signature, it becomes part of their personality, whether it be the colour of the fabric or the silhouette itself.
"A hat is a really good symbol of change, I guess. My friend who we make for in Australia calls them mood indicators."
And while others might put the international success of Hills Hats solely down to Hatman, Smuts-Kennedy says it's the family company's sense of community that makes it special.
"I think there's a real sense of family, all the way through to the staff, we've got our head of the uniform department who has been with the company for over 30 years. Although Hills wasn't a household name when we got involved, it's slowly becoming more so — I think my staff are really proud to be working with us.
"We've also changed, to a certain degree, communication between manufacturers, we're very open, very complimentary, and it's just a whole different language — the enemy are those who don't wear hats, not other manufacturers.
"I'm very lucky, I've worked with my father for the last 20 years, he's 80, he turned 80 a couple of days after I turned 50. Dad comes into work every morning, he's just so interested in what we're doing. He won't retire, he just loves what we're doing, because of course something new is always happening, whether it be product, new customers, new inquiries, he loves it.
"And I'm very lucky that I'm 100 per cent supported by my family, my kids. Before Hatman they had a slightly different father but they love it. My oldest, Ella, who's 21, she's constantly laughing at her quirky dad."