Reporting by Erin Adelman and Laura Dudones
Though little is known about the hat’s origin, it has existed since antiquity. The first known image of a hat is in an ancient tomb in Thebes, depicting a simple skull cap. Hats, specifically those worn for fashion, were worn mainly by men, until the 16th century when women began wearing hats of similar style and chic. In the 18th century, the first hatmakers appeared. At that time, the best hats came from Milan, coining the term ‘milliner’.
Nowadays, women are the primary consumers of the hat industry, buying beautiful and extravagant hats for events such as weddings, parties, and horse racing. A vast array of style and color options is essential for events like Royal Ascot, so customers can find the perfect hat to complete their outfit. In London alone, there are over 60 hat shops.
One hat shop in London is Hat Gallery, found off of Kensington High Street. With a large assortment of international brands, owner and milliner Marly Vroemen has created a complete collection of hats with a niche for every customer.
Vroemen studied economics in university and had a career in jewelry before deciding to open her own business.
“I decided to go for a niche market that needed some new blood, some refreshment. So about thirty years ago I opened a store in Amsterdam,” she said. “I became like a gallery representing milliners all over Europe who would not attend fashion trade shows in London or Paris. We would have five or six different milliners, and we would present each of the collections at the main events.”
After receiving feedback about the lack of such a store in Germany, Vroemen opened her second store in Dusseldorf.
“And then one day I thought, ‘Let’s try London’,” she said.
As Royal Ascot season began this past week, Vroemen said it is “one of the most rewarding weeks of the year” for her.
“You see many customers and you feel the vibe and it’s very pleasant,” she said.
During Ascot season, she said more tourists visit her shop. She also meets women who attend the races yearly. Though some only attend one day, many attend three or four days “and they need to change their outfits [and] their hats all the time.”
“It’s interesting to see how many tourists from the United States…Australia, France come and find us,” she said.
Vroemen believes many women feel more secure selecting a dress before a hat, but doing this limits what hats can be bought.
“We have customers who start with a hat because they think…it’s [easier] to find a dress after you’ve bought the hat. But the habit of many of women is to go first for the dress,” she said.
Women are more likely to wear more daring styles to Ascot than they would other formal events such as weddings, Vroemen said. Though black is a classic color, she said Royal Ascot hats are more about colour.
“We sell loads of colours like…the variety of the pinks, the variety of the reds, the orange, the fuschia,” she said. “Black is…at the moment much less sold than one might expect as it is a classic colour you can use over and over again. But Ascot is not about wearing over and over again. It’s about knowing that you want to make an entrance and statement. Feminine colors are stronger, more positive, more optimistic.”
This season Vroemen said she noticed the popularity of pillbox hats, which were originally popular in the fifties and sixties following Jackie Kennedy. The modern popularity of the pillbox hat is due to the fashion tastes of many members of different royal families, such as the Queen of Belgium, the Queen of Holland, and Kate Middleton, who all favour it, Vroemen said.
“People see it, and they mirror it,” she said. “[They think], ‘If she can wear it, I would like to see how it looks on me.”
Another trend Vroemen noticed is how large hats are less popular.
“[The hats] could be exotic or sexy … but not really super large pieces,” she said. “The reason is women want to be more and more comfortable. So it’s not about standing there with this one meter piece on your head … [Women] want to communicate, they have a business relation[ship] with people they meet at Ascot. So it’s slightly more practical.”
Vroemen said there are many international events that generate similar attention to millinery as the Royal Ascot does in England.
“In Germany … we do have a few important horse race events and women tend to buy hats,” Vroemen said. “Then there are some local cultural events where women would need to wear a hat .… In Holland we have the opening of Parliament … All women who are invited by the king have to wear a hat or a hat piece.”
Vroemen is thoroughly invested in the collections of milliners she sells in her stores, and she pays attention to the tiniest details when deciding what to showcase in her galleries.
“For me, it’s very important that every milliner has her signature,” she said. “So we have, for example, the Australian milliner, Bonnie Evelyn… and her pieces are quite organic and quite modern, contemporary. She doesn’t make huge pieces, but she makes pieces that, you look a little bit like a ballet dancer. Very refined, and you become a little bit taller and modern.”
She continued, “Then we have a French milliner… if you compare what she makes [to Bonnie Evelyn], that’s a very different signature… You try to make a menu which leaves it open for everybody to choose from.”
Vroemen caters to the style of every individual who enters her store, not only through her variety of designers, but also within her own brand of hats, Bronté.
“The customer is the main input,” she said. “You get quite a lot of feedback, which you see in the figures, in the results, but also from the teams in the stores,” she said of her designing process. “It’s more like a step-by-step development, and it’s not shocking people … You have to gradually change and shift.”
Vroemen said her brand attempts to balance quality and price, as well as offering one-size-fits-all in each of her hats to provide customers with a unique versatility and practicality.
In regards to whether her stores will selling online in the future, Vroemen said, “The problem is that if you have a Norwegian customer, or you have a customer from the south of Italy, the hat size would probably vary about three or four centimeters. The Bronté summer hats include a
One-Size-Fits-All system and they are absolutely suitable to sell online. There are hats that are absolutely suitable to sell online, but these kind of Ascot pieces, no.”
Vroemen caters to her clientele while remaining true to her own signature style. This balance provides a niche for all customers, whether you are in need of a practical summer hat or a statement piece for Ascot. According to Vroemen, you can depend on the team at the Hat Gallery to provide “personal and professional advice, for both styles and categories.”
Photo credits: The Hat Gallery