It is worth allowing more time than you’d think for a visit to, Hatters of St James’s Street, Mayfair, London. This charming and unique establishment, which traces its roots back to 1676, is confident that it offers the largest variety of hats in the world. From practical flat woollen caps for the colder months to a huge range of panama hats for the summer, Lock serves an international clientele of both sexes with headwear to be worn all year round.
Like a good shoe shop, Lock stocks an astonishing range of sizes. Its popular Chelsea fedora, for example, comes in 11 sizes ranging from 55 to 65 (or 6¾ to 8 in UK sizing or 6⅞ to 8⅛ in US sizes.). It has 110 options on its tweed caps. Women can choose from a ready-to-wear collection called Hât-a-porter or have unique couture styles made on the premises by skilled milliners. Customers’ own tweed cloth can be hand-made into flat caps by a specialist craftsman.
There is a vast selection of stylish classics such as trilbies and fedoras for both sexes. It has around 12 styles of trilbies and related sporty felt hats in stock, in various colours and across full size ranges. It has new felt top hats and vintage silk top hats. It has fur hats for winter and straw boaters for summer. It can sell you a classic British bowler hat — and tell you why it is often called a Coke hat.
Lock keeps an intriguing variety of specialist headgear, ranging from a hunt cap for horse riding, a dressage hat for equestrian competition, a classic grey chauffeur’s peaked cap, a fez, a vintage pilot’s leather hat with goggles and a Victorian-style embroidered velvet smoking cap. “That’s the only hat that is designed to be worn indoors,” points out Lock’s director Sue Simpson.
The family-owned company — it has been in the same family since 1676 — sells almost all its hats under the Lock & Co label. For a younger, more fashion-forward take on hat styles for men, it has a funky collection called Lock & Roll. Apart from its couture millinery and its bespoke flat caps, it works with specialist manufacturers in the UK and Europe to create its own unique styles. It augments its own collections with key items from well-known names such as Borsalino of Italy, Stetson from the USA, Akubra of Australia and Tilley from Canada.
Lock produces a well-illustrated catalogue and has a transactional website, but for the real Lock experience, a trip to 6 St James’s Street is strongly recommended. The expert staff advise customers from all over the world about the importance of getting the right fit — most hats shrink after repeated wearing — and the importance of getting the right hat to suit the size of your head, the shape of your face and your general stature. With hats, the secret is to have every element in balance. It is an education to have one of Lock’s team explain why, for instance, the height of a hat’s crown, the shape of the crown, and the width of the brim, not to mention the colour, must work in harmony with your physical characteristics. But beware. A trip to Lock & Co is dangerous as you may find yourself buying more hats than you ever thought you’d need.
Get Ahead, Get a Hat
A British advertisement in the 1940s used to advise ambitious young men: “Want to get ahead? Get a hat!” Up until the fashion revolution of the 1960s, smart headgear was an essential element of the well-dressed man’s or woman’s wardrobe. Today a man’s 'proper' hat (other than the ubiquitous and deeply unstylish baseball cap) is seen about as often as a watch chain or a bow tie. Women wear hats usually only at weddings and other smart social events. It has become a mark of an individual to wear a hat as a style statement. Lock & Co attracts lots of individuals as its customers.
The spiritual home of the committed hat wearer, 6 St James’s Street looks from the outside pretty much as it would have done in the late 1700s. And it’s only slightly more modern inside. Hats on display and hats stored in drum-like boxes bearing the circular Lock & Co badge are everywhere. Among the company’s 19 staff there is a vast wealth of knowledge on the history of headwear and its suitability to modern life. Buying a hat at Lock’s is an unhurried experience. Old-fashioned service is not old-fashioned here. A novice hat wearer will be guided through the basics, while the experienced hat wearer will find plenty to discuss with the resident experts.
Quality is paramount. Lock’s hats are made to last. Women can have couture hats made from scratch under the watchful eye of Silvia Fletcher, who has been Lock’s millinery designer for almost 20 years. Female customers have their own salon on the first floor of the historic building. The whole experience is totally different to the self-service offer of most modern department stores.
Although Lock declines to make men’s bespoke hats — “It is just too costly to create an individual block for a customer,” explains director Sue Simpson — customisation of ready-made styles is always available. The silk band and bow on a panama or other soft hat can be changed for a small charge. Lock keeps silk bands in the regimental colours of many British Army regiments on site. It can normally keep favoured hats alive by repairing linings and replacing the leather bands that sit around the head.
Lock has the craftsmen to repair and refurbish vintage silk top hats. There is a lively market in such rarities, especially those that are in large sizes to fit modern heads. This year, Lock also produced a strictly limited edition of new silk top hats, the first to have been made for more than 50 years, thanks to the chance discovery in an attic of a roll of the silk plush fabric used to cover these iconic styles. The silk fabric has not been made anywhere in the world for half a century.
With its astonishing comprehensive range of sizes, Lock can fit almost anyone and each soft hat, like a panama, trilby or flat cap, can be stretched or adjusted (usually using steam) to fit an individual perfectly. For a rigid or 'hard' hat, such as a top hat or bowler, fitting requires the use of a 150-year-old French apparatus called a conformateur. Comprising mainly of 48 flexible ebony arms, this remarkable device establishes the shape of a customer’s skull. When the contraption is gently pushed down on to a customer’s head, the ebony arms, each of which is like an inverted L-shape, are pushed outwards. This movement determines the position of sharp points on the end of each arm. These points puncture a circle of points on to a piece of paper at the top of the conformateur, so the circle represents the outline that determines the hat’s fitting.
Once the paper pattern has been cut out, it is placed in another flexible apparatus called a brow. On this, another set of movable pegs is fitted around the piece of paper, therefore following exactly the shape of the customer’s head. The rigid hat in question is then adjusted to the correct profile using steam in the case of a felt top hat or a bowler. Steam is inappropriate for silk top hats, so direct heat from an electric fire is used.
Lock has on its wall the paper patterns of famous clients such as Charlie Chaplin, Charles de Gaulle and the Duke of Windsor. Plenty of other people have passed through the door of 6 St James’s Street over the years; Lock recently disposed of 60,000 of these paper head shapes belonging to sometime customers who have died.
Lock holds Royal Warrants to supply hats to both Prince Charles and to his father, the Duke of Edinburgh. Most members of the British Royal family have been clients too. Lock & Co measured the head of Her Majesty the Queen to ensure that her coronation crown fitted perfectly in 1953. Lord Nelson was another historic customer and in the building the company still has the ledger listing the many purchases in the years before and after the First World War from Winston Churchill.
Given its huge array of splendid headwear, Lock is very popular with fashion stylists and it has attracted some surprising collaborations in recent years, such as that with British rock musician Pete Doherty for the French fashion brand The Kooples and with the cult Japanese fashion label Bathing Ape.
Even after 336 years of trading, James Lock & Co is very relevant, vibrant and ready to help anyone get ahead.