Hats have been the accessory of choice for the preppy, clean-cut runway looks of recent years. If the new spring/summer collections are any indication, the fedora, the trilby and the panama continue to reign supreme. Many of the smart designs spotted on fashionable heads the world round began life, in some shape or form, in the Czech Republic, a country with a hat-making tradition that marries well with the Old World glamour promised by a certain kind of headwear.
The history of millinery in the Czech lands stretches back to the Middle Ages when the first felt caps were produced here. Later, in 1630, a hat-makers guild was formed in the north Moravian town of Nový Jičín and the region became known for its exquisite hats, with an impressive roster of clients including the Empress Maria Theresa. In 1799, a workshop specialising in high-quality fur-felt hat blanks and finished hats for men was established in Nový Jičín. The workshop would eventually evolve into one of the world’s largest manufacturers and suppliers of quality hats, Tonak.
By 1910, the company was supplying all of Europe with boaters and bowlers. At one time Tonak hats were found of the heads of author Jan Neruda, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Today the label still serves customers in 50 countries worldwide with the same panache. Their semi-finished shapes supply the houses of Chanel and Dior; Tonak makes are sported at racecourses from Ascot to Dubai. The company’s presence at 2010’s Millionaire Fair in Moscow, where Russian oligarchs browsed signature derbies and knitted fezzes, showed there is no end in sight to the fine hat’s enduring appeal.
Company spokesperson Sylvie Vaněčková says of Tonak’s ability to thrive in the face of an economic downturn: ‘Fashion, or its components or parts, repeats itself. We’re seeing a return to the clothing and footwear of different periods from the last century, particularly a return to hats.’ She cites the influx of mass-produced, low-quality copies from the east as the brand’s largest foe. ‘It isn’t easy to succeed in global competition and attract new clientele. The only option is to offer customers something the competition doesn’t.’
That something is premium materials – Tonak is one of just eight remaining felt-hat manufacturers in the world – along with traditional techniques, carried out by master hatters and designers, which are the hallmark of Tonak craftsmanship. ‘We are strengthening the brand in the field of high-end hats,’ adds Vaněčková.
To stay current, Tonak releases two collections a year. Its newly opened ‘prestige shop’ in the Koruna Paláce in the heart of Prague’s Wenceslas Square is a feast for hat lovers, stocking technicolor berets, soft cloche caps and wide-brimmed Easter styles for women, alongside the perennially sought-after fedoras, akubras and more casual newsboys from the men’s line. Today’s hat wearer, in search of a little Sinatra swagger, says Vaněčková, goes for ‘black fedoras and black and brown derbies with a sportier look and narrower brim’.
Daniela Veselá, lead designer at Družstvo Model Praha, a company with a retail location on Wenceslas Square and several ateliers throughout Prague, wholeheartedly agrees with Vaněčková that hats exude timeless allure. ‘I think subconsciously people are seeking a more noble appearance and hats, especially for women at important social functions, are a big part of that.’
Model Praha caters to women. Veselá and her staff conjure grand styles from felt, cloth, straw, hemp and net. ‘Each hat is one-of-a-kind and never replicated,’ she says. ‘We make every model from the initial design to the final decoration.’ For summer Veselá works in natural materials such as breathable sisal. ‘I don’t believe in even touching poor material,’ she says. Veselá also sees the millinery tradition as threatened by assembly-lines. ‘There aren’t enough young and promising modistes and our craft is dying out,’ she comments.
Model’s pillboxes and boleros, embellished with feathers, flowers and brooches, have adorned celebrities, including Dagmar Havlová, actress and wife of the former president of the Czech Republic, and have accessorized period costumes for top theatre productions. The Model Praha label appeals to contemporary tastes as well, with its assortment of retro-look tweedy safari caps, suede bell hats with oversized buttons and floppy-brimmed sun hats, all ripe for ready-made fashion statements.
Yet the sheer pleasure of having a hat made to your own specifications in a traditional workshop is undeniable. Fashion-minded travellers looking to take home a real piece of Czech history will get a head start at one of the capital’s elegant milliners.