Though time and technology has swept away so many niche industries the world over, the Strand Arcade has long played refuge to some of the last Sydney-centric emblems of sartorial tradition. Holding guard at one of these time-honoured retail chambers are Robert and Richard Carroll, the nephew and uncle behind Strand Hatters, the store that concerns itself with all matters of men’s hat-making.
To describe Strand Hatters as established would be somewhat of an understatement. “The shop’s been here for a long time…for 50 to 60 years,” says Robert Carroll, the man currently in charge of this Sydney institution. “I’ve been here for 22 years and I’ve been running it for the last 12 years, so it’s my baby,” he continues. “It’s fun. My nephew started working with me about two years ago.”
Richard Carroll, the young relative in question, corrects his uncle soon enough: “It’s like three or four years now,” he says.
“Oh, God,” Robert smiles. “See? It’s that much fun I think it’s only two.”
On this particular day, Robert wears a porkpie hat capped with the requisite dandy’s feathers, while Richard dons a decidedly less serious, yet no less impressive baseball cap fashioned from beer cans. With a last name like Carroll, the Mad Hatter references could really write themselves and there is something Wonderland-like quality – at once absurd and delightful – about such a ‘boutique’ boutique persisting in Sydney’s CBD.
There are hats stacked, assorted and splayed in the compartments climbing the walls. Panamas and trilbies and porkpie hats, a genuine Navajo headdress, an Evel Knievel helmet. The latter two are from Robert’s personal collection, but they make you wonder about all the hats you don’t see. “I had 300 and I had to get rid of some of them because it was becoming like a drug,” he claims matter-of-factly. You don’t doubt him for a second.
Richard contends: “I only have seven or eight…dozen.”
While so many brands work to diversify their market and tap into new demographics, Strand Hatters persists with a stubbornness for specificity and style. “Every year we have pretty much the same stock. You can be pretty sure that if you bought something before, you can come back and buy it again,” says Richard, “and we like that…the history and tradition. The comfort.”
This sartorial sentimentality translates to their in-house label R&RC, a small collection of the Carrolls’ own designs, which are even more expressive of the pair’s urge to embrace older forms design sensibilities and craftsmanship via material quality and an aesthetic nostalgia. For their most recent collaboration with Akubra, they came up with the Speakeasy, a name that references the Prohibition era while, perhaps accidentally, echoing Sydney’s penchant for underground bars styled in the same way.
“It’s very formulaic,” says Robert. “It’s a hat. We’re not claiming they’re creative masterpieces. It’s about picking the hat and picking the smaller details. Like the fact that we’ve got two-tone, and ribbon-on-ribbon and the string which attaches to your lapel button.”
Richard explains that traditionally, the cord is to secure your hat “when you’re riding a horse…or walking down Pitt Street”.
“We tried to keep that whole traditional thing – keep the manufacturing local, keep the fabrics local,” he says.
They pull out an array of their own label’s ties: vintage golf club silks in navy, burgundy and forest green ¬– the colours that would eventually form the Speakeasy. “We wanted to do men's accessories and we wanted to do something traditional, so we thought two-tone was obviously the way to go," says Robert.
Richard continues: "Two-tone sort of fell out of favour towards the end of the 40s and 50s. During the mid-War period you've got a lot of these hats that are two tone…and we're bringing it back!”
Robert presses and moulds a Speakeasy in his hands. “The thing is – the special thing is – they’re an open-crown hat, which means that we can shape them. A pork pie hat, a square crown, we can re-shape it to match a client’s face.” It’s exactly that kind of quirk – matching a hat to the shape of a face – which might otherwise be lost in the tides of retail change. It certainly echoes a recent revival tailoring and bespoke, part of the bigger renaissance for all things vintage.
From the perspective of a traditional retailer, what are the origins for this recent revival? “After the 80s, it was all anti-fashion, especially for men,” Richard suggests. “Guys were dressing down or dressing crazy and then, maybe five or six years ago, something sort of happened. Guys like me who got sick of anti-fashion, were like, 'I'm sick of seeing these guys trying to look like they're not trying to dress up’.”
His uncle points to a more concrete example. “I think that, as much as people disagree, or as much as I really don't want to say it, but a massive influence is television. Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men…[it encourages] this organic movement in furniture, in fashion, of going back to bespoke and that kind of thing.”
“Suddenly, dressing up and dressing properly was in the minority,” says Richard, “and it became interesting again.”