‘Enter the Hatmosphere’ celebrates 145 years of Hills Hats, 25 July 2020

Lemon squeezers, cheesecutters, pancakes and trilbies – discover a world of wonderful hats and hat-makers in Petone Settlers Museum’s newest exhibition which celebrates 145years of local company Hills Hats.

Enter the Hatmosphere opens on Saturday 25 July, with a Hills Hats Tea Party from 2.30pm, where people can try on wacky headwear and raise a cup of tea to Hills Hats.

Simon Smuts-Kennedy, the owner of Hills Hats and also known for his alter-ego ‘The Hatman”, is keen to share his love of hats with the local community, and show the creativity and dedication of the Hills Hats team.

“A company is only as good as the people who work for it,” he says. “We have gifted people who have a long-term dedication to the craft and we want to celebrate their skills in this exhibition.”

Display at Hills Hats, 2019. Photo by Lauretta Ah Sam.

Hills Hats is firmly part of the fabric of Petone, and the Smuts-Kennedy family has been manufacturing here for three generations. Many of the Hills Hats team have been with the company for more than ten years, with recent retirees clocking up 40 and 50 years’ service.

“It’s pretty darn special,” says Simon. “I grew up with the people who work here, and so many families have become part of ours.”

“Seeing the faces of the people in our team, and being so close to the factory itself, I hope it makes people think about who makes their clothes. I hope that it inspires people to support New Zealand made, and see a New Zealand company that’s unique on a global stage.”

With musicians like Fat Freddy’s Drop and Ladi6 rocking their headwear, they often have people coming from all over the country to visit their store.

“Many people don’t believe they can wear hats – but after five minutes trying on hats and having fun, they change their mind. Very few people walk out of here without a hat.”

Hills Hats Lemon Squeezer for NZDF, 2019. Photo by Lauretta Ah Sam

Lauretta Ah Sam, whose documentary photos of the Hills Hats team and factory feature in the exhibition, says she was captivated by the Hills Hats story when she went on a search for a beret.

“I was immediately struck by the visual contrasts of a diverse group of people working 19th century vintage machinery, intermingled with shelves of modern hat designs and fabrics,” says Lauretta.

Her photography seeks to highlight one of Petone’s hidden gems and celebrate the people who have contributed to its success.

“I feel privileged to be able to highlight and celebrate some of the highly skilled and passionate people who craft the hats. I’m very thankful to the employees of Hills Hats, especially to Simon, for the generosity of time and spirit they have shown me.”

Karl Chitham, Director of Museums for Hutt City Council, says people will be to see a snapshot of the history behind the company, and how they’ve innovated over time – a story of survival of a local business.

“At Petone Settlers Museum, we share the stories of our local community,” he says. “Enter the Hatmosphere is paying tribute to a small Petone family company that is an important part of the vibrant business district here, and has a unique presence internationally.”

Davee, Hills Hats machinist, 2019. Photo by Lauretta Ah Sam

Hills Hats made headlines during the Covid-19 pandemic with a switch to manufacturing beautiful bespoke face masks alongside their hat production.

Simon says: “When Covid-19 hit, virtually all of our orders were cancelled – so we started making face masks. We’re prepared to re-gear and refocus. It’s the oldest textile business in the country that we know of, so we consider ourselves to be caretakers of the craft.”

Sarah Robinson, Social History Curatorial Intern for Petone Settlers Museum, says the Hills Hats team have been generous with their time to help create the exhibition.

“In the exhibition, you’ll get a sense of their creativity, adaptability, skills and dedication to repurposing materials. It’s a story that our community can be hugely proud of,” she says.

Enter the Hatmosphere opens Saturday 25 July at Petone Settlers Museum, and runs for a full year.

The Hills Hats tea party is free to the public, and starts at 2.30pm on Saturday 25 July. Register to attend here.

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