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Tip of the hat

Words by Fiona McGowan

A hat maker for two years, Marcel Rodrigues has nonetheless become a master of his craft.

Who knew hats could be so complex? After an hour spent in the company of Marcel Rodrigues and his wife Becky, I feel as though I have been a complete headwear philistine all my life. For a start, I never knew that cowboy hats were made of fur. If I had ever thought of the material at all, I would have guessed they were made of felted wool. But no. Beaver fur has always been the follicle of choice, apparently – prized for its waterproof qualities and its denseness. Beaver fur trade was a big deal between Europe and America as far back as the 17th century, especially when the European species was hunted to relative scarcity, and America became the main source of beaver fur and felt for hats.

Beaver belly fur is the best, according to Marcel Rodrigues, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hat-making process. Its densely matted strands make excellent grade felt. Hat felt can be made from wool, of course, “but it smells like wet dog, and it’s rough, and the finished product is hard to shape.” And who knew there are lower-grade levels of hat-felt? Rabbit and mink were introduced to the American market when the beaver population was falling thanks to over hunting. Today, hat makers use rabbit and mink fur felt as a slightly less expensive option. I can attest that there is a difference in texture between rabbit and beaver felt – marginal to my untrained fingertips, but probably a massive contrast to those in the know.

But there is so much more to learn. Hat making is a skill that very few people know about. Marcel, for all his knowledge, has only been making hats for two years, but you would never guess it. It is as though he has been forming fedoras and panamas for his whole life. He and Becky tell their story while he starts to make a hat. Marcel takes a big, round-crowned, floppy-brimmed felt hat from a stack above the workbench and pushes it over a circular block of wood. “This is an open-crown block,” he explains as he beefily shoves the material down over the block. There is some serious effort going on, forcing the hat down until the brim eventually reaches the worktop. Becky, her hands resting underneath her pregnant belly (baby number three is due any day), looks on: “I couldn’t believe it – a couple of years ago, Marcel came home from work one day, and said ‘I’m going to try and make a hat.’ I said ‘What? What is he talking about?’ And then he just started accumulating all this old equipment, some of it dating from the 1800s…”

This is a multi-tasking experience. Marcel and Becky segue between telling their story and explaining the hat making process. The next step is pushing a tight cord over the crown of the hat and rolling it down to its base. It’s called a ‘blocking cord’ and is used to create a clean, sharp crease between hat and brim. Marcel is visibly straining with the effort, and sweat starts to bead on his forehead beneath his velvety black fedora. In spite of the heat he’s generating, he says he’s not just wearing the hat for effect. “I always work in hats. Since I worked on Savile Row, I never go anywhere without a hat.” In his early 20s, he worked for three years for avant-garde tailors Cad and the Dandy. One of the founders, ex-city boy James Sleater was a good friend, so when Marcel was given a chance to leave his job working in IT at HSBC, he seized the opportunity. The draw to work in that world wasn’t very surprising, he says: he grew up in Cape Town surrounded by “very stylish women” – his mum and sister were both into fashion, and his aunt was a buyer for high-end fashion brands.

The blocking cord has been pushed down to the base of the hat, and Marcel picks up a steam iron, jacks it up to high pressure and presses it firmly against the crown of the hat and down on the brim. Over the noise, Becky tells me that she and Marcel were living in Oxfordshire and, after three years, the commute to Savile Row was getting too much. The couple wanted to settle down and have children, so Marcel got a job working in aviation near to Oxford (“I was leasing planes for a living”) while Becky carried on with her work as a housing planner. Two children later, Marcel had his epiphany moment, and literally went for it – hell for leather. He would come home from work, put the kids to bed and work in the conservatory, learning the crafts of the hatter. “In the winter it was so cold,” he says, as he peels the hot, damp hat off the block (it’s called a ‘hood’ at this stage – before it has been formed into its final iteration), “but in the summer it was a sweat box.” He committed all his free time to the new art, developing contacts and experience at Christy’s, a nearby hat factory, to get ideas and experience. Becky was roped in to help with stitching and details – both of them working late into the night under bright lights to hand-sew the ribbons and leather sweat bands.

The felt hat sits on a nearby bench to dry, and Marcel can relax for a moment. When he was finally prepared to start the business, Becky and Marcel took the decision to move to Cornwall – as a lifestyle choice as much as for financial reasons. They sold their Cotswolds home and bought a place near Wadebridge. Setting up in Hawksfield could not have suited their brand better. The collection of funky retail shops, high-end vintage motors, contemporary art gallery, a deli and café – not to mention numerous local businesses – are all about promoting a classy vision of Cornish entrepreneurship. And this is exactly what Marcel Rodrigues is all about. While their suppliers are in the US – and the majority of their clients are also US-based – Marcel and Becky want their brand to be associated with their new home.

The hats are bespoke. It’s not just about getting the right size: for the fedoras alone, clients can choose from a range of 30 colours, different brim widths and different shaped crowns. Once the hat has dried, Marcel uses a ‘rounding jack’ – which has an adjustable width – and a Stanley knife blade to cut the brim in a perfect, sharp-edged circle. He then takes it outside, wraps a bandanna around his face to prevent the tiny hairs getting in his sinuses, and rubs the whole hat with a sander. This is known as ‘pouncing’ – the end result is a velvety smooth finish to the hat. The shape of the crown is another whole process. The hat goes back on the block and gets heated up again, so that Marcel can hand-crease the top of the crown into a diamond, teardrop or a cross diamond shape. While mass-produced felt hats are uniformly shaped using a moulded block and heated press, a hand-creased hat has its own unique character. He then adds the lining (embroidered silk from Mexico), a leather sweat band (in the client’s chosen colourway) and decoration (vintage fabric ribbons, poker cards, rusty nails, distressed edging, you name it, you can customise it). Some of the six machines used for the sewing jobs date back over 100 years; some of them are replicas. And Marcel has taught himself to master every stage of the hat making process.

The young couple are nothing if not aspirational. Becky is now in charge of marketing and “adding a bit of artistic flair”, and they are both looking at ways to grow their unique business. “Our clients are mostly more edgy. All of them have a love of fashion. We haven’t got that specific client, but they have one thing in common: they want something different. They want something to make them stand out.” Marcel Rodrigues hats cost anything from £280 to £1,200 – and they are proudly high-end in terms of the quality and durability of their products (the felt hats can last 50-60 years), but they are keen to make other elements of their brand accessible to all. Marcel has commissioned a friend who specialises in vintage tattoos to create designs for a line of t-shirts (British made, using sustainably sourced materials); they are looking at doing leather-and-canvas tote bags, and have recently done a collaboration with an ultra cool men’s clothing store in Paris – making hats to complement their bespoke leather shoes. While their exclusive hand-made panama hats are sourced using top-notch Ecuadorian straw, they are also branching out into other types of straw hats.

It’s amazing to think that they have any time to enjoy their ‘lifestyle choice’ of living in Cornwall, but apparently they do manage to get family days on the beach – Marcel is into surfing and spear fishing, when he’s not off riding on his vintage Kawasaki motorbike. Their son has just started at the local primary school and two-year-old daughter Beatrix pops into the studio with granny to say hi before heading off to the local nursery.

This is certainly a family business with a twist – and, with its burgeoning high net worth and celebrity clientele, there’s no question that it’s a luxury brand to watch.


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