Hills Hats: Enter the Hatmosphere


Hills Hats: Enter the Hatmosphere


Lemon squeezers, cheesecutters, pancakes and trilbies – discover a world of wonderful hats and hat-makers in Enter the Hatmosphere, which celebrates 145 years of local company Hills Hats.

Powered by the factory family in Petone, Hills Hats is fondly referred to as ‘The Hatmosphere’, where the humble hat has been reinvented and recreated, alongside more classic styles. Sustainability, innovation and creativity are integral to the company; the designs often incorporate recycled and organic materials, a combination of cuts, textures and patterns, and a distinctive flair for the magnificent.

Demand has sky-rocketed and Hills Hats now serves an extensive national and international client base, including the New Zealand Police, New Zealand Defence Force, various musicians and performers, and the All Blacks. 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.

Hills Hats has a long and illustrious history in Wellington – originally opened in 1875 on Lambton Quay by Charles Hill, the company took over the hat market and flourished. Fast forward 145 years and the factory and shop are now in the care of Simon Smuts-Kennedy just down the road on Fitzherbert Street.

Simon Smuts-Kennedy aka Hatman, 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.

Simon Smuts-Kennedy, 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.

His team are the people who make the magic happen. They are a diverse bunch, with a huge range of experience and interests, all of which have led them to Hills Hats. There is a deep enjoyment for their work and pride in their craft, as well as a fondness for one another. This exhibition celebrates the factory family and their work over the past 145 years.

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

A peek behind the scenes: Photography by Lauretta Ah Sam

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

Lauretta first met Simon one morning in late 2017. She’d been unsuccessfully looking for a beret when she was pointed in the direction of Hills Hats. While being fitted for a hat by Simon the two chatted and Lauretta was given a tour of the factory. She was struck by the combination of old machinery and modern designs. She was also interested in the people that make these hats; the people she came to know as the Hills Hats family.

As a social documentary photographer Lauretta wanted to illuminate the skill and dedication required to craft hand-made hats. In a world where manufacturing jobs are increasingly being lost to automation, she felt this was an important story to tell. Simon was on board immediately and Lauretta began photographing and talking to the Hills Hats whānau.

Scissors & sewing machine, 2019. Photo by Lauretta Ah Sam

The resulting photos are a collaboration which seeks to highlight one of Petone’s hidden gems and celebrate the people who have contributed to its success. The project is a glimpse into the stories of the employees, the people behind the products, many of whom have been stitching, blocking, cutting and embellishing hats for local and global markets for decades. It’s a collaboration with the Hills Hats team and Lauretta is grateful for their generosity in sharing what motivates them to make hats.

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