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Crowning Glory: Lock & Co. Hatters, St James's

St James’s is home to the oldest shop in London, which has one of the few remaining on-site workshops in the area. Luxury London uncovers the magic of millinery at Lock & Co. Hatters

There’s something indescribably comforting about visiting Lock & Co. Hatters on St James’s Street. As the oldest manufacturer in the world of arguably the most definitive British accessory, this Grade II-listed, late 17th-century terrace has dressed some of history’s most prominent figures – from Sir Winston Churchill to Charlie Chaplin.

The tale of Lock & Co. begins with a love story between James Lock, grandson of George, who established a coffee house at 6 St James’s Street in 1686, and Mary Davis, the daughter of hatter Robert Davis, whose shop – founded in 1676 – was just across the road. In 1747, James became an apprentice at Davis’s store and from this appointment a new family was formed. In 1759, James married Mary and his new father-in-law handed him the keys to his millinery business.

“We were originally on the other side of the street but we moved over in 1765, because traditionally you do more business on the sunny side of the street than on the shaded side,” explains Roger Stephenson, deputy chairman of Lock & Co. and seventh-generation family member.

This was undoubtedly a wise decision. As we chat, sunlight fills the shop from the wide thoroughfare and reflects off the Daniel Quare grandfather clock, which has been on the premises for over three centuries – since before James Lock moved in. The front counter where transactions are made is more than 200 years old and there’s the outline of a doorway that once led to apartments upstairs, one of which was rented by American actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr for a time. Such a rich history could fill a museum the size of the whole building, but instead there is a modest room of memorabilia at the back of the main floor where precious items are kept, including Her Majesty The Queen’s wooden head shape that was made by Stephenson’s grandfather to fit the crown for her coronation.

The Queen’s wooden head shape was made by Lock & Co. to fit the crown for her coronation. 

One of the walls is filled with signed celebrity head measurements – from Sacha Baron Cohen to the late Princess Diana – that have been made using a Victorian contraption called a conformateur. Stephenson describes it as “a sort of steampunk top hat that makes a sixth-scale diagram of the head shape”. Lock & Co. still use this device to measure customers for hard hats today.

One such style is the bowler, which was actually created by the shop’s chief hatmaker Thomas Bowler in 1849 as a riding hat for gamekeepers at Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

“Victorian railway workers wore them too, and that’s why you see them in the Wild West, because when we sent our workers over to build the railways in America they took the bowler hat with them,” says Stephenson.

“In Bolivia, the ladies in the villages wear really small bowler hats perched on their heads. It turns out that when we built the railways in Bolivia, the people who supplied the bowler hats to the railway workers got the size wrong, so the women picked them up and started wearing them, and now they are traditional.”

While peaked caps are enduringly popular – made even more desirable recently by the television series Peaky Blinders and what Stephenson calls “the David Beckham effect” – the bowler hat was the store’s fourth biggest seller last month.

“To be truthful, 20 years ago we struggled a bit, but hats are really back in now,” says Stephenson. “My pet theory is that you have to skip a generation, because nobody wants to look like their dad. We’re seeing hipsters in Shoreditch wearing a bowler hat with a checked shirt and denim shorts and it’s great – it’s giving the hat a new lease of life,” he enthuses.

Indeed, back in the main area of the shop a pair of young, well-dressed male customers are trying on traditional styles. For people who are serious about millinery, Lock & Co. is the most elite name in the industry.

“People might come in because they are new to hats and they want the advice of an expert. Being a specialist business, we’ve never deviated from that: we’re hatters, we stick to making hats, and so that’s what’s made us last,” says Stephenson.

While Lock & Co. is renowned for men’s hats, customers are often surprised to learn that it also caters to women. One aim of the current collaboration with high fashion milliner Prudence is to increase the number of fashion-forward clientele that Lock & Co. has built up over the past few years. Many have come through other collaborations with brands like Vivienne Westwood, Johnstons of Elgin and Carhartt.

The attic workroom is just as you would imagine in a shop from a Charles Dickens novel 

Alongside Prudence’s whimsical, English garden-inspired creations – some of the tulle is actually stained using Earl Grey tea – sits Lock & Co.’s couture collection, which can be tailored and dyed to the customer’s wishes. This range is made on the top floor of the building, accessed by one of the oldest Victorian coffin staircases in London. Even though men’s hat production has moved to Europe or elsewhere in the UK, Lock & Co. remains one of the few places in St James’s where goods are still manufactured on site. The attic workroom is just as you would imagine in a shop from a Charles Dickens novel or the Harry Potter series: colourful ribbons and threads overflow onto surfaces and intricate silk flowers lie daintily half-finished like they’ve just fallen from a tree.

“Our client base is so wide, we have everything from a 99-year-old Californian granny to a very fashion-forward Japanese lady,” says creative director Ruth Ravenscroft, who has been at Lock & Co. for 17 years.

Even if a hat is ordered online, it is picked, steamed and prepared at 6 St James’s Street, which is quite hard to believe after manoeuvring through the tight doorways and corridors. As we descend the suitably creaky staircase, Stephenson cheerfully relays the pitfalls of such ancient architecture.

Part of the company’s success, I realise, lies in the zealous attitude of custodians such as Stephenson, which is why Lock & Co.’s future will be as colourful as its past. There’s another Prudence collection in the pipeline, a new range of bespoke Panamas and an upcoming film based on Sir Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour, for which Lock & Co. has befittingly supplied the headwear.

But for just how long is the business likely to remain within the same family? “I have two children and I wouldn’t want to pressure them, but at the same time I’m keeping a little bit of an eye on who could carry it on. There’s an appetite within the business, and we don’t want to sell,” says Stephenson.

“I’m related to James Benning, an eccentric member of the Lock family who was the original mad hatter on which Lewis Carroll based the character in Alice in Wonderland. I’m quite proud of that.”

I can understand the connection. Number 6 is St James’s very own enchanting rabbit hole and one of the only living, breathing time capsules of London now left in the West End. Hats off to Lock & Co. 


Q&A with Prudence Millinery

Avant-garde mononymous milliner Prudence has designed headwear for fashion houses including Vivienne Westwood, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Balenciaga, and her creations have graced countless magazines. This season she launches her debut collection for Lock & Co.’s progressive women’s line, Lock Couture. The nine-piece range is called The Creation of a Garden.

Where do you find inspiration for designs?

I am influenced by dedication and genius, such as that of Mozart, Picasso, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. But also the beauty of hardship: the will to carry on through difficulty.

How did you go about creating the new Lock Couture spring/summer collection?

I had a very large bunch of peonies delivered to my studio. The older they became, the more beautiful they looked. The petals were falling on the table making a lovely sound. At the same time I was planting a white garden at home. The days planting were stormy and cloudy with bursts of sun. The idea for the hats came from all this. Hats that are past their best, faded and stained flowers, torn tulle and colours of cloudy summers. This idea of imperfection appeals to me.

What are your fondest memories?

Working on Vive la Cocotte for Vivienne Westwood and at the Saint Laurent main studio, with a large photograph of Yves Saint Laurent watching over me.

How have you seen the world of millinery change throughout your career?

I find people and makers know less and less about millinery. We have been faced with the same shapes for decades and as a result, quality has suffered. But I’m changing that.