As part of London Hat Week, ancient and esteemed hatters Lock & Co opened their doors for a tour of their showroom and workrooms. The company is based in St James’s, a small enclave of London near St James’s Palace (official home to the royal court and until recently home to Prince Charles) which traditionally has been an area for old-fashioned, gentlemanly industries due to the court and the clubs which sprung up around it in the late 17th century. It’s where you can buy cigars, have a cut-throat shave and order bespoke cologne, be outfitted top to tail in tweed, with a cane and some hand made shoes, and end the evening eating caviar and drinking Scotch in a high backed leather chair. Or at least, you can if you’re a man of a certain age, wealth and standing. Lock & Co opened in 1676 and moved to the current premises in 1759, into a shop which had been a coffee house, and which had residential rooms above until at least the 1950s.
The building is grade II* listed, a category which applies to only 5.5% of listed buildings. Its staircase is listed separately, being a fine example of a ‘coffin’ staircase (where the void in the centre is shaped so a coffin can be lowered, should a resident expire upstairs). The letter box is about 5 inches wide, no good for modern post, and the front door looks like it’s more paint layers than wood.
The ground floor is dedicated to men’s hats, including trilbys, cokes (the original name for a bowler, named after landed politician Edward Coke who commissioned them as protective headgear for his gamekeepers), smoking hats, panamas, boaters, and a huge selection of handmade tweed flat caps. Out the back is a small workroom for steaming and heating trims (most felting is done off-site), and shelves of vintage silk top hats in archive boxes. New silk toppers are no longer made, but Lock & Co buy up and restore vintage ones for a long waiting list of clients using the traditional shellacking process. Due to the increasingly large head sizes of the modern man, supply and demand means the larger and rarer vintage sizes can command a price tag of thousands. The use of shellac in the manicure industry has also pushed up overheads recently. As well as making hats, Lock & Co provides a service of repairing and redesigning exisiting hats, such as fitting a new hat band or lining, or cutting down the brim, and clients can also bring in their own fabric for bespoke matching items.
The frame above displays the 1/6th sized head shapes of famous patrons, including Laurence Olivier, Bob Hope, Evelyn Waugh, General de Gaulle, and Victor Borge. The headshapes are created by a series of pins in paper, punched in by a 100-year-old device called a conformiter (a still from a 1960s film featuring Lock & Co, showing the exact same device, is here), which looks like a steampunk top hat made from an old typewriter. I was bemused to find my own head shape closely matching Larry Hagman’s, of JR Ewing fame. Apparently oval and elongated shapes are common in Europe and the Americas, and rounded headshapes in African and Asian populations. The paper shapes are used to make personalised blocks for hard hats such as cokes and riding hats. A more recent display on the staircase includes such modern dandies as Jamiroquai, Kevin Rowland, Terence Stamp, Ray Winston (‘a lovely fellow, he’s always in here’) and Simon LeBon. Alongside is a cabinet containing a 200 year old order book with a sketch for Napoleon’s famous bicorn, and above is the moth-eaten and faded hat itself.
Upstairs are ladies hats, which have only been produced by Lock & Co for the last 22 years. Head designer Sylvia Fletcher and three dedicated milliners produce two ‘hat-a-porter’ collections a year alongside various couture and bespoke items. Lock & Co takes the show on the road four times a year, including Cheltenham festival, Goodwood Revival, and Burghley horse trials. Most straw, sinamay and felt items are blocked on-site using bespoke blocks, and trimmed in the workspace in the eves of the building, where the structural beams come to a peak. Rooms are also rented to Rachel Trevor Morgan, milliner to the Queen and who’s work is displayed in the windows to the rear of the building.
Lock & Co is a bastion of tradition and good taste, and provides a fascinating glimpse into a past worlds alongside its current ranges. It’s one of two hatters still remaining in St James’s, the other being Bates on Jermyn Street – once there were six. But it’s still going strong with a loyal customer base. And alongside royal warrents for the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of Wales are items for the everyday gentleman: paisley pocket squares, bowties, and, of course, that embroidered, red velvet, gold-tasselled smoking hat perfect for a future occasion.