The best new hats for men

Hats with a splash of colour, hint of humour or rock ’n’ roll swagger are introducing fashion-forward hatmakers to a new clientele. Mark C O’Flaherty reports

Orlando Palacios in his showroom in New York
Orlando Palacios in his showroom in New York | Image: David Carlo

A milliner’s atelier can be as atmospheric as any grand private library or museum. Each shelf is piled high with history and stories, every corner a touch haunted. There will be clusters of weathered wooden hat blocks and archaic-looking hand-operated machines spouting plumes of steam. Within the context of modern men’s fashion – often hallmarked by meticulous gloss and LED billboards – it looks like an anachronism. But, like bespoke tailoring, this is how things are still done, and it’s where cutting-edge designers often head if they are looking for a flourish for a new catwalk collection. And increasingly, it’s also where you’ll find style-savvy men in search of the perfect classic-with-a-twist contemporary hat.

Worth & Worth by Orlando Palacios rabbit fur felt Nomad Ombre, $525
Worth & Worth by Orlando Palacios rabbit fur felt Nomad Ombre, $525 | Image: Isaac Rosenthal
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South African milliner Albertus Swanepoel adds the finishing touches to all his hats with just one assistant, Genevieve, in his studio on the fringes of Manhattan’s Garment District, four blocks from the Empire State Building. There are rows of every colour of ribbon along one wall, and piles of rabbit-felt capelines: vaguely shaped raw hat forms ready to be transformed, using one of the milliner’s 300 ornate wooden blocks, into one of his distinctive men’s hats. Swanepoel has been working in New York for over 25 years and is celebrated for his runway work with Proenza Schouler, Diane von Furstenberg, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang, and although such conceptual pieces can end up as limited editions at Bergdorf’s for in excess of $4,000, it’s his men’s ready-to-wear (from $175) and custom (from $400) lines that have become more significant to his business. “It’s growing faster than the women’s side of things,” he says. “And things have moved on stylistically: we are seeing a wider brim, three to four inches, whereas it used to be two and a quarter. It’s incredible how much difference a quarter of an inch makes. I had a remarkable block made in Paris recently, with a 5in brim, but my business is about making hats that men actually want to wear.”

Worth & Worth by Orlando Palacios rabbit fur felt Nomad hat in a selection of colours, $350 each
Worth & Worth by Orlando Palacios rabbit fur felt Nomad hat in a selection of colours, $350 each | Image: Isaac Rosenthal
Stephen Jones
Stephen Jones

It’s telling that while the likes of pop irritant Justin Bieber is a fan of Swanepoel’s hats, so is suave actor Daniel Craig, who has bought pieces from hip East Village men’s boutique Odin. “There’s a modern and artistic voice in Albertus’s work, while it also nods to the past through its craftsmanship,” says Odin’s Edward Chai, who points to the stylish Kidd fedora ($320) as a staple of the store. “It looks great on most people,” he asserts, “which is rare with hats. And it looks better with age.” With its upward-tapered brim, the Kidd has a classic literary traveller look to it and has sold particularly well in alabaster-coloured rabbit felt. Black may reign over the rest of the fashion world, but not in modern millinery. As hatmaker Orlando Palacios says, “Even though most men wear black, they like a pop of colour with their hat. I can’t keep blue on my shelves – it sells out straight away. Olives, browns, rusts and champagne are also popular.”

Stephen Jones's wool Marvin trilby with metal trim, £375
Stephen Jones's wool Marvin trilby with metal trim, £375
Anthony Peto
Anthony Peto | Image: Urs Homberger

Swanepoel and Palacios are two of a handful of international milliners known for their high fashion, directional collaborations with designers, alongside developing more wearable men’s ranges. Other key names include London milliners Stephen Jones and Prudence, who create for Thom Browne and Vivienne Westwood respectively, and Noel Stewart, who has collaborated with Roland Mouret, Hussein Chalayan and Gareth Pugh. Stewart is creative director of Christys’ (the 242-year-old hatmaker owned by Liberty) – evidence that the establishment is embracing the spirit of innovation in men’s millinery. “Stewart’s own line has been a key brand for us,” says Rebecca Curran, creative director of online millinery retailer LoveHats.com. “His designs are unique and on trend, using traditional methods but interesting and edgy materials. We also stock Anthony Peto, who always has great humour in his collections, uses fabulous colours and trims and hand-produces every piece in Paris.”

Anthony Peto velvet Duluc hat, £150
Anthony Peto velvet Duluc hat, £150 | Image: Frederic Aranda
Albertus Swanepoel
Albertus Swanepoel | Image: Nicole Ho

For this autumn Peto has created the Duluc (£150), a red velvet hat reminiscent of a classic British trilby and named after the famous Parisian detective agency. Peto is renowned for his play on texture and colour – often with a shaggier felt and dandier ribbon than most. And while the small-brimmed Duluc is typical of his work, he agrees with Swanepoel that men are currently buying a broader silhouette than before: “The wider brim was once seen as too classic, but now it’s the biggest seller,” he says. His Capone (£150) channels this on-trend look: “You can wear it with all kinds of clothes. Some customers add feathers or tufts of grass for a personal take. Another approach is to reshape the hat while wearing it, maybe turning the brim up on one side or making a larger dent in the crown.”

Albertus Swanepoel's studio in Manhattan’s Garment District
Albertus Swanepoel's studio in Manhattan’s Garment District
Noel Stewart
Noel Stewart | Image: Morgan O'Donovan

One of the most popular designs at US-based hat specialist Worth & Worth by Orlando Palacios is another wide-brimmed hat, the Nomad (from $350). It’s the kind of hat William Burroughs might have sported circa Naked Lunch, with a saucer-type broad brim. “It has a simple crown and contrast stitching, with no ribbon,” says Palacios. “It’s for guys who travel, jumping from aeroplane to car. It has a self-shaping crown, so it shapes to your head the more you wear it and gets better with age.”

Noel Stewart rabbit fur Bond trilby, £119
Noel Stewart rabbit fur Bond trilby, £119
Prudence beaver felt Plantation hat with grosgrain trim, £750
Prudence beaver felt Plantation hat with grosgrain trim, £750

This wanderlust-tinged, bohemian flair can be found in many modern hats. “Our Adventurer/Poet hat [£119] is having a moment,” says Noel Stewart. “It’s the same style that Harrison Ford wore in the Indiana Jones movies. And we have introduced new colours for our classic high-crown Homburg [£125], which gives it a contemporary twist.” For autumn, Stewart has designed the Bond (£119), which he describes as “a bit Mad Men, with great classic proportions and a modern edge”. There’s also a new lightweight fur felt range (£110): “More trans-seasonal, good for businessmen who travel a lot internationally.”

Noel Stewart rabbit fur Homburg, £125
Noel Stewart rabbit fur Homburg, £125
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At the more accentuated end of the scale, the mononymous designer Prudence has taken inspiration for her autumn collection (£750) from John Lennon (“when he was in his fur coat-wearing phase”) and Lord Glenconner, aka Colin Tennant, the confidant of Princess Margaret, much photographed in his iconic white wide-brimmed hat while partying on Mustique with the Queen’s sister. These new pieces include 17.5cm-high crowns and broad brims. Prudence oversizes some of her hats to create idiosyncratic designs, but also crafts custom pieces (from £750) at her small London studio with her staff of three. Perhaps surprisingly, she says her male clients are more relaxed than her female customers when they visit. “Men’s hats are traditionally made by hydraulic press, and women’s by hand,” she explains. “And though it’s somewhat unusual to make a man’s hat by hand, men are more used to the bespoke process because they are familiar with being measured and fitted for suits. If they really invest in tailoring, having a handmade hat complements those pieces.”

Palacios also handmakes his hats (from $225) in the studio behind his showroom, two blocks south of Central Park. Each involves around 12 processes and represents a whole day’s work. He especially likes to handshape using beaver – the same textile traditionally used for rough-and-tumble cowboy hats. “The beaver spends 90 per cent of its life in water, which creates a higher lanolin percentage in its fur and a denser fibre,” he explains. “It’s also more durable, and rain just rolls off without any chemical treatment.”

Similarly, the hats in Stephen Jones’s JonesBoy range (from £200) are made on site at his atelier in London and hand-shaped – though he prefers to use wool felt. And while his showstopping pieces have been exhibited in museums worldwide – Swanepoel affectionately refers to him as “the master” – Jones has a different approach to his selling collection for men. “My hats are all ultimately based on fashion, not tradition,” he says, “but when I’m creating one for the catwalk it has to be seen from 50m away, whereas when I’m designing for the street, it is for the head of one man shaking hands and having a conversation with another. There has to be a different sense of scale.”

This autumn the JonesBoy collection has been inspired by Detroit and its music scene. Rock music and millinery have always gone hand in hand, and nothing says showmanship like a hat. The JonesBoy Smokey (£345), Stevie (£375) and Marvin (£375) are all wonderful wool trilbys that throw 20 per cent more rock ’n’ roll energy into the mix than you might find with a Jermyn Street milliner. And each is a very wearable piece of contemporary design. The attention to detail, quality and craftsmanship of the hats from these catwalk designers is superb – a throwback to the gentlemen’s outfitters of the 19th century, but with contemporary chutzpah. “There’s a lot of sex appeal and machismo in modern millinery,” says Prudence. “Men’s fashion hasn’t had that for a long time.” Such character is what is turning the man who has never worn a hat except on holiday towards this new-wave millinery. “Someone might be hesitant when they buy their first hat,” says Palacios. “Then they leave the shop, go into the street and get their first compliment. ‘Nice hat!’ instantly triggers a new kind of confidence.”

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