Some notable British establishments are found on and around St James’s Street in London’s West End, from royal residence St James’s Palace to some of the capital’s finest restaurants. Among these prestigious names is Lock & Co, the oldest hat shop in the world; this London legend celebrates 340 years of business in 2016.
In 1676, hatter Robert Davis opened a shop on the newly fashionable St James’s Street. Nine years later, in 1686, George Lock opened a coffee house on the same street. In 1747, James Lock – the grandson of George Lock – became apprenticed to Charles Davis, the son of Robert Davis. In 1765, when his daughter Mary married his former apprentice, Charles Davis handed the keys to his business to James Lock, and the hat shop took the name it has today: Lock & Co.
In the years that followed, Lock & Co became the hatter of choice for some of the most prominent members of British high society. Clients included 19th-century prime minister Lord Grenville and Admiral Lord Nelson, whose signature cocked hat and cockade, familiar from his portraits, was created in the shop. The store and the family that ran became well-known; James Benning, an eccentric member of the Lock family, is said to have inspired the Mad Hatter character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s book.
Today, Lock & Co holds two royal warrants – one from the Prince of Wales and another from his father, the Duke of Edinburgh – and created many of the hats worn to the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Ruth Ravenscroft, the brand’s creative director, sees the company’s enduring success as a result of remaining true to its founding principles. ‘We believe in superior customer service and using the finest materials to produce the best styles,’ she says. Lock & Co’s customers are loyal and know they can depend on the team to provide exactly what they need for the most important occasions. ‘Before the busy Ascot season some clients send images of their summer wardrobe,’ explains Ravenscroft. ‘We are able to advise them and have their hats ready when they arrive for the season.’
Classic yet contemporary
Lock & Co is proudly traditional in many ways, but it is also one of London’s most respected purveyors of contemporary millinery. ‘We continue to use traditional millinery techniques but are always experimenting with new materials and shapes,’ says Ravenscroft. ‘We have several new blocks made every season and often take inspiration from the runway for the season’s lead colours. Each season we create a capsule collection of more extreme and fashion-forward pieces as well as translating the current season’s colours and feel into our more classic styles.’
The team has also collaborated with some of London’s leading fashion names, including Vivienne Westwood, Private White VC and Mr Porter. This not only widens Lock & Co’s appeal, but also brings exciting new challenges. ‘Partnering with likeminded brands allows us to access different demographics and really have fun with the hat designs,’ explains Ravenscroft. ‘We have an exciting collaboration coming up with Johnstons of Elgin, the world’s finest and oldest cashmere maker, on a capsule collection of men’s beanies. We’re really excited about this collaboration because there is fantastic synergy between our two brands, as well as being royal warrant holders and family-owned businesses.’
However, it is one of Lock & Co’s oldest creations that remains its most popular – the Coke (pronounced ‘cook’). In 1849, nobleman Edward Coke approached Lock & Co’s chief hatmaker Thomas Bowler for a new hat. He wanted a design that improved upon the traditional top hat, which kept falling off his gamekeepers’ heads while they were working on his Norfolk estate. The result, the oval, durable Coke, is better known as the bowler, and to this day it is one of the most recognisable hat styles.
The practicality of the new wind resistant, hardwearing design meant that it found popularity beyond the English countryside. It was worn by British railway workers in western America, and was adopted by Wild West outlaws, South American women, and stars of the silver screen, including silent film icon Charlie Chaplin, Patrick Macnee of The Avengers and Monty Python’s John Cleese. The Lock & Co creation was cemented as a masterpiece of design.
The Coke, says Ravenscroft, is still one of Lock & Co’s best-selling designs. ‘We continue to sell bowlers to city workers, those who wear it as part of their uniform, like county show judges and the army, Nigerian customers who see the hat as a status symbol, film companies and a wide array of international tourists who are keen to own a piece of Lock history.’ Whether the Coke is your style or you’re looking for something truly modern, when it comes to headgear, 340 years as a leader in the field make a hat from Lock & Co an impeccable choice.