Introduction by Joseph Connolly
Bates, the world famous hatter, has had a presence on London’s Jermyn Street since 1898 – and although my own lifetime doesn’t yet span quite that long an age, I must have been an enthusiastic customer for the past thirty years, and more. The old and much-loved shop was very attractive in a higgledy-piggledy sort of a way – but my goodness was it tiny! If one person was trying on a hat, then another would-be customer was virtually compelled to wait patiently on the pavement until that person had completed his purchase and departed – for only then would there be just sufficient space for him to sidle in sideways and have a go himself. And if a chap who was trying on one of the plush felt and very wide-brimmed fedoras were so rash as to turn around too quickly – my God, he could have had your eye out…! And forever there was a danger of scalding from the kettle: always permanently bubbling and ready to steam a brim into shape – though also, within so minuscule a space, almost impossible not to collide with. The swing sign above the shop, in the form of a giant grey topper with black band and bold block lettering, was internationally recognised, as was the glass case containing Binks – the stuffed cat who once upon a time had been very much alive, and picking his way gingerly over the mounds of trilbies. For many decades now he has sported a black silk top hat all of his own, as well as a beady eye and a fine cigar.
Bates was indeed a London institution, to which enthusiasts eagerly travelled from all over the world. So in 2009, there was great consternation when it was announced that the whole of the block that housed it was to be comprehensively redeveloped, and all of the shops were given their marching orders. Well now … the two chaps who had run the place for a very long time were both getting on in years, locating and setting up alternative premises in Jermyn Street (for surely it was unthinkable that Bates could ever leave Jermyn Street!) would be arduous, as well as prohibitively expensive … and so it truly did appear as though the writing was on the wall: Bates, the 110 year-old hatter, was to close down for good.
At this point there really should be a trumpet fanfare – for here is the cue for the entrance of the knight in shining armour, galloping on probably no less than a white steed to the rescue of something far more worthwhile than merely a damsel: it was Bates who was in distress! Jermyn Street’s own St George took the form of Mr Michael Booth, who for more than forty years has been the sole owner of another fine institution just a few doors down: Hilditch & Key – established in 1899, and the finest shirtmaker in the world. Now Mr Booth is never seen without a hat – grey or black fedora in winter, panama in summer – and of course he always bought them from Bates (where else?). And therefore he was doubly concerned: not only about the imminent demise of his hatter, but also for the very profound loss to Jermyn Street that the closure of Bates would undoubtedly spell. And so – very statesmanlike, this – he bought the business, lock stock and barrel. He saved the day …! Three cheers …! At least! Really, you know, we ought all to club together and strike a medal for him, so that he could pin it on to his hat band and flaunt it daily.
There are two Hilditch & Key shops in Jermyn Street, by far the larger being number 73, on the corner of Bury Street. A large and self-contained rear section of this shop previously had played host to ladies’ shirts and nightwear (these ranges have been rather beautifully transferred to the upper floor of the smaller shop, number 37), and this space now was very handsomely and generously fitted out with brass-handled mahogany deep drawers and shelving, and totally given over to Bates: a proper and exceedingly smart shop within a shop. The original top hat swing sign is proudly mounted over the large Bates showcase window; Binks has pride of place, but of course, and continues to survey the passing scene with the same beady eye – and even the kettle still steams away, though now, rather mercifully, offering far less chance of injury.
The improvement upon the original shop is immeasurable: plenty of room to move about, lots of space for stacks of the famous and traditional white hat boxes bearing the original very smart calligraphy … clever mirrors that allow you view the hat on your head from every angle … and, by no means least, an extremely helpful and knowledgeable hatter: here is Bates’ own Jean-Luc, a Frenchman who has spent most of his working life at the highest end of the trade. The range too now is quite extraordinary: trilbies and fedoras of the very best quality, many in 100% beaver felt (the gold standard in the hat business, and nearly all of these are completely exclusive to Bates). And as well as the muted colours one might expect, there is a changing roll of rather surprising and very alluring shades too: and this is true not just of said trilbies and fedoras, but also the toppers and bowlers (of which they sell a great number). Then there all the tweed hats and caps – slouches, Donegals, deerstalkers, shooting style, butcher’s boy and Tam o’Shanter – and a superb and unrivalled selection of summer hats ranging from simple cotton to the very finest panama in the world: the Montecristi Superfino.
Within hardly more than a year, the shop now seems so very thoroughly established that it is impossible to believe that here is not where always it has stood. And if ever you are in Paris – do look in at the elegant and very lovely Hilditch & Key shop on the Rue de Rivoli … where upstairs you will find another handsome, very spacious and well stocked branch of Bates: more than happy to feed the Parisian hunger for Le Style Anglais. The client list of both Hilditch & Key and Bates truly reads like a Who’s Who of the world’s most distinguished and discerning gentlemen. And then there’s me.
So there you have it: Bates the magnificent – and now, thanks to the sainted Mr Booth … for ever! Yes indeed: I raise my hat to them.