Determined to bring back the everyday hat, Claire Howeson left her job as a City solicitor to set up Penmayne of London. Three years later, combining classic shapes, jewel tones and a healthy dose of fun, she seems to be doing just that. A hat trick? We think so, says Julia Chadwick
“I get a bit boring about this, I have to warn you,” says Claire Howeson, founder of Penmayne of London, “but it makes my tummy go a bit funny thinking about it. The scientific basis of art is incredibly measured, it flies in the face of what so much of creativity is.” I think about Penmayne’s gorgeously coloured trilbies and fedoras, the sleek lines brought firmly up to date by a wink of gleaming silk, feather or bead. Of course, she is never boring.
The hat designer is talking about her work with Swarovski, who came together with Penmayne last year to help create a collection of wide-brim fedoras embellished with the famous crystals. “Swarovski are one of those brands, for me, that represent the perfect interface between science and art. They work out the chemical formulae of all of these amazing colours that occur in nature and then replicate it, literally building art from the scientific bones.”
When you consider her background, Howeson’s passion for the subject makes sense. She studied biology at university and worked as a human rights lawyer for five years before setting up Penmayne of London in 2013. “I’m a gut-feeling kind of person and it suddenly felt like the right thing to do,” she says of her decision to move on. Besides, she spent her childhood in Kent watching – and helping – her father run his fine food distribution company: “I was brought up driving forklift trucks at weekends. It was always my ambition to have my own business.” However, her years studying science and then the law seem to have stood her in good stead. “You think in a very analytical way; you work in a very logical way. I think probably the reason that we’ve been able to run things successfully is because we’ve got the right balance between commerciality and creativity.”
Balance is something Howeson mentions frequently. Her first experience of hat-making was as a hobby, an evening class with the milliner Edwina Ibbotson which “kept [her] sane” when she was working as a solicitor. She describes designing as “a wonderful release, an amazing contradiction to sitting there doing your accounts.” When I ask how she spends her free time now, she laughs. “It’s funny, because sewing used to be my time out and now it’s my job. I don’t sew in my spare time, put it that way.”
So what made her choose hats? “As soon as they find out what I do, people immediately say, ‘Oh, Ascot must be your biggest time’ – it’s amazing how strong the association is. But the more I learnt about the industry, the more I thought there was a gap in the market for bringing hats back into everyday wear.” She thinks for a moment. “Everyone has a story about hats; they remember what their grandmother used to wear, or they treasure one of their grandfather’s hats. Our real mission is to get people seeing them in the here and now.” Claire’s own story concerns her grandmother, who used to be a costume designer for film. “She always had hats in her drawings that just balanced all the outfits beautifully. That’s what I love about the hat, the overall silhouette that it creates, how it can balance out a body shape, balance out the length of your hair, the boots that you’re wearing.” So we come back to balance once again.
Willow Fedora, £349. Buy now
It seems that the creativity gene, along with that cool brain for business, has been passed onto Howeson. While Penmayne specialises in the suits-all shapes of trilby and fedora – and, just in time for summer, the panama, launching later this month – the trims and embellishments lend something very special to each hat, ranging from the fresh and playful to the chic and understated. However, there seems to be an equal focus on the practical element of hat-wearing as the aesthetic. “There’s a lot of development to make sure it lasts the test of time, that it’s easy to clean, easy to store, so that it becomes a practical addition to people’s wardrobes as opposed to something decorative,” she says. When I ask her about the Globe Traveller, an ultra-light creation that can be moulded into a variety of shapes with the fingertips and rolled up into a tube for easy transportation, her enthusiasm flares once more down the telephone line. “That’s the sort of thing I really love. We’re trying to provide a solution, a product that’s fail-safe, so all you’ve got to do is wear it. We want people to think about hats in the same way they think about handbags.”
Amber Trilbury, £315. Buy now
Penmayne might be forging a new path for headwear in current fashion, but Howeson is acutely aware of the hat’s importance in our fashion heritage. “Being able to support British manufacturing is amazing. We get our hats shaped locally to London; some of the blocking outfits we use have been around for hundreds of years. It’s a huge privilege working with people who have so much knowledge.” All hats are finished in the London studio. “In order to maintain a brand value, as a luxury product, it’s been very important to us to keep a lot of the manufacturing in-house so that we can put a high level of craftsmanship into it. We hand-make all the trims, we hand-brush all the felts, we hand-stitch everything. There’s no hat that goes out of here that I don’t think is beautiful.”
Speaking of luxury, what is hers? “You know what it would be? If I could afford it? An Olivia von Halle silk dressing gown. To be able to get up in the morning and make my coffee in a silk dressing gown is my dream. That probably sounds really weird.” After all this talk of history, of silhouette, of glamour? It doesn’t sound weird at all.