Hats have experienced a significant renaissance in recent years, no longer reserved for weddings and horse races but embraced as everyday statements of personal style. Riding the crest of this revival is London milliners Laird Hatters, whose contemporary take on quintessentially British designs, rendered with particular attention to craftsmanship, has carried it from strength to strength and shop to shop (it now has four) since its conception in 2009.
“We began by selling other brands’ hats from a shop on Columbia Road,” explains Alex Torun-Shaw, the brand’s co-founder, along with his partner Zofia. “But then I started a millinery course at the London College of Fashion and we created our own capsule cap collection in 2010.” Not long after, the duo relocated to a Covent Garden store, kickstarting their journey into commercial millinery and soon stocking only original designs. For Torun-Shaw, this involved taking courses in eastern and central Europe to learn how to hand-manufacture hats with a steam press, before returning to London to put his skills into practice – using nothing but the finest millinery tools.
Among the most treasured of these is an aluminium hat block, purchased by Torun-Shaw in Florence. “It’s the centre of European hat making materials,” he explains. “There’s a great artisan there who made this block; he is a real master. You really need somebody on your wavelength to create the perfect block, especially since my Italian isn’t amazing and he doesn’t speak English. There’s a lots of pointing and gesticulating in order to get there, which is why this block is so special.”
A well-made block is integral to the creation of a fine hat as it provides the form around which the felt is sculpted. “You steam the felt on the press, and then stretch it over the heated block to create the shape you’re envisaging, ” Torun-Shaw explains. “Then you trim off the excess felt and add the sweatband, lining and other details.” Laird Hatters use two types of hat press – one Edwardian, the other French, made in the 1960s. “It’s nice to know that the process hasn’t really changed since the 19th and early 20th centuries,” Torun-Shaw notes, an apt statement from the founder of a company that prides itself on providing a 1950s standard of customer service, offering their shoppers a glass of whisky and expert advice to help them find the ideal hat.
The milliner also notes that the last stage of hat making is, quite literally, in the hands of the owner. “One of the beauties of hats is that the customer can shape it according to how they want to wear it. Giving it a deep pinch at the front every time you pick it up, for example, changes the entire look. So their hands are the final tool really, which is quite nice."