7 Jan 2024

Simon Smuts Kennedy: Hill's Hats hanging on after 150 years

From The Weekend , 9:31 am on 7 January 2024

Hill's Hats in Petone is gearing up to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. 

That's a huge achievement for any business, especially one in the manufacturing sector, but it's not all peachy in Petone. 

Hills is facing increased competition from overseas. Recently several key clients, including Defence Force, have shifted their hat orders away from Hills, instead signing contracts with offshore manufacturers. 

The result of this pressure is that Hills have also started importing hats made in China, and selling them under their Eskay brand. 

Hills Hats Owner Simon Smuts-Kennedy also tells The Weekend's Susana Lei’ataua how Hatman - a character in a gold mask, cape and captains hat - has been helping them to secure export orders.

Hat making at Hills Hats

Hat making at Hills Hats Photo: Jessica Chubb

Smuts-Kennedy reckons they are probably one of the oldest clothing manufacturers left in the country.

"People always sort of say, well, you know, hats used to be the big thing in the years gone by, but they're increasing, they're coming back. 

"It's a fashion item, it certainly creates someone's own personal character."

Their popularity has reached celebrities including Fat Freddy's Drop, Shapeshifter, Troy Kingi, Bailey Wiley, Tiki Taane and Tami Neilson.

"Tami was amazing in getting a hat on Willie Nelson for us, which was huge, obviously. 

"We made him a beautiful navy cowboy hat, which was all hand manipulated with a nice ribbon and then the lining also was special for the occasion that Tami went across and presented it to him. Apparently he loved it and is wearing it still, which is great.

"There's actually a lot of new people jumping on board at the moment, which is exciting for this year."


A post shared by Tami Neilson (@tamineilsonmusic)


But increasing costs have pushed corporate clients to look offshore which has meant the manufacturer gets left with extra unused materials, he says.

"We normally would go out and say, look, we need to make at least 50 units to make it viable for the amount of components that we bring into the country that we hold on stock and so on for those orders. 

"But it's just getting to a point now where they're just so small and we just can't supply or source the components, and hold on to them for such a long period of time."

"It might look attractive to go offshore but certainly with what we do, the quality that we do, the quick turnaround, and the loyalty, I guess too, to the armed forces, it's just not adding up, unfortunately."

Some of the staff have been there for more than 30 years but the struggles of the business means they have had to downsize a bit, he says.

"It's a roller coaster - a year ago or even six months ago, we couldn't find enough staff to keep up with what we were doing, and now going into this New Year, we're probably light in preorders than we've been in the past and it's a little scary, but they always come in, the orders always come in."

One way he's been securing these orders is by getting out to potential customers overseas - and he's gotten creative about it too, going dressed up in character to make his appeal.

"I had a contract for New South Wales Police and went across on a regular basis to go and do the fit out and they would always sort of wait for, 'oh, here's hat man'. 

"And so one occasion I actually did put on a mask in a legions flap on my top hat and had a great response to that and sort of just carried on, and sort of got a little bit more wacky each time I sort of travelled across, to a point where even going into JJ hat center in New York and also CA4LA in Japan. I actually wore a gold suit and walked into both stores. 

"That actually sort of generated from the Wellington Gold Awards that we entered here. So the superhero side of things is very clunky. It's meant to be a little bit silly, but at the same time it is fun. People love coming into the Hatmosphere and trying on some of hat-man's hats, just sort of lightens the tone a little bit and people relax and start to get a little bit serious about what they're gonna wear."

Another popular product have been their Pandanus straw hats, he says.

"We've been working with the weavers up there now for around about nine years, and it's really come on, it's made out of a natural fiber or straw called Pandanus. 

"It's really durable, you can block it multiple times. It's not going to break like a lot of the other cheaper straws and even some of our Panamas, you know, we still have to educate people not to pinch them too much, so they don't split, but the Pandanus out of Vanuatu is amazing."