The Mad Hatter
The Essence of Luton
Philip has hat knowledge in his blood. Four generations of hat makers, he grew up with hats, played on the shop floor and has taken the art of hat making to a new level. Surrounded by history, rubbing shoulders with other craftsmen, Philip found his passion ran deep into the ‘world of hats’.
He has personal stories, rich background knowledge and amazing skills. A real live debonair mad hatter, a generous helping of the theatrical talent, lashings of the charisma, oodles of hat experience as he takes his customers on an individual, spectacular ‘hat experience’. His passion takes the process forward; he pushes the boundaries, explores the possibilities and challenges expectations. The end result is extraordinary. A free dress up, images that light up the wearer and a special selection of silhouettes to choose from.
In the depths of Luton, near Luton Football Club and just down the road from Hatters Way, the last working hat factory sits nestled in the centre of the city. The railway and packing business were close too. This was positioning for the best performance possible. Hats were made in the factory, packed and transported by rail.
It all began as a love story. Boy meets girl and falls in love. The daughter in the straw hat business lost her heart to a Swedish felter. Walter Wright came from a felt hat making family who were expelled from Europe because of their Huguenots routes. His sweetheart, Minnie-Susan was the eldest daughter of a Hertfordshire family with established skills in the local industry. Their story reflects romantic excitement, they decided two hours after their wedding, to set up their own hat factory.
A purpose built factory was their dream. They planned their hat production space to be solely for hats. A lot of other hat factories, at the time, were a combination of residential and hat production. The buildings were homes at the front with a factory constructed on the back. Their new hat factory was purpose built to house the machinery. They bought state of the art equipment to give them the best quality hats. Some of this original machinery is still on the factory floor.
The couple combined their skills to make hats all year round. The straw hats were worn in the summer while the felt ranges were for the colder winter months. Based in Luton, the hub of hat making, their business grew. More and more hats were produced.
Like most family businesses, the hat business continued as their children took over. Hat wearing was very popular. The hat business was thriving. The factory used high quality materials to give their hats the edge. A ‘top-down’ system was designed for efficiency. The top floor was used for blocking, stiffening and dying. The specialist machines were positioned on the second floor while finishing took place on the first floor.
Finally, storage was on the ground floor. When production was at its peak, the finished hats would be sent through a trap door on the first floor to a waiting horse and cart for the next stage of the hats journey to market. Other hats were stored on the ground floor awaiting their own transportation.
Luton railway station was much larger than required for the town, due to the volume of hat production. In the 1930s Luton produced over 70 million hats each year. The density of the hat factories was remarkable. All the other industries were located in the vicinity too. It was the global centre for hats.
World War One and World War Two heralded the decline of the hat industry. Walter Wright took over the running of the factory when Philip Walter Wright’s health declined. Walter reacted quickly to changing demands in hat wearing and managed to keep the business going for himself and his 1000 staff. As a keen supporter of Luton Football Club, his involvement gave them their name ‘The Hatters’ adding to his care of the community.
When Philip took over from his father, he focused on small runs and some new creative collections. His catwalk collections turn heads and demonstrate his design skills, with additional opportunities for customers to discuss their hat options at his bespoke consulting boutique showcases.
He is an artist who uses hats to give the wearer a unique, new, dramatic look. His talent to express new ideas in an individual way are paramount to the final outcome, every hat is a creation and will become an iconic piece in every customer’s new hat collection. His hats tell a story in a three - dimensional form. No two hats are quite the same.
Reflecting on the future, Philip hopes to use his factory space as a place for creative people to use and explore their own ideas. He points out that there is nowhere for individuals at the start of their journey. His legacy is to create this space for these new projects with his daughter.
See some great image of Philip in the September issue of The Hat Channel Mag.