I could spend all day chatting with John Shevlin. He is a fascinating man with a twinkle in his eye and a measuring tape round his neck. His hats can be spotted on some equally fascinating famous heads. Shevlin originals are found on Ireland’s president Michael D Higgins, Stephen Fry, Theo James, Jermone of Robson and Jerome and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor who plays Nidge in Love/Hate. What a diverse selection of characters! John as I found out today, has some fabulous stories to go along with meeting all these famous faces. I visited him at his studio in Cows Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin to discuss all things hat related.
How did you get started in the hat business?
Growing up I was surrounded by hats with my father being a milliner. My father started his hat factory in the 1960’s. Some years later the church decreed that ladies no longer needed their heads be covered. This combined with perms and hair colouring becoming widely popular forced hats out of fashion. Ladies didn’t want to cover up a hair do they had spend a fortune on!
So how did hats become popular again?
It wasn’t until Princess Diane came on the scene wearing hats that a British hat revival was born. This had a knock on effect here in Ireland. Around that time I started creating mens hats, something my father hadn’t gotten involved in. Hats are most certainly back in fashion and now mens hats are nearly as in demand as ladies.
After branching into the male market John started experimenting with Panama hats. Today he is the only Irish maker of the real Panama hat using quality toquilla palm plant from Ecuador. He creates these for both ladies and gentlemen. This is the particular style of hat our president wanted from John before heading off to Gallipoli. President Higgins himself visited John at his studio to discuss what he wanted and John delivered him a beautiful Panama. You know you’re talking with someone who is an expert in their field when a president is commissioning them for their work.
When you visit Johns studio you are treated as a VIP. If you want, he will tell you exactly what style of hat suits you as soon as he sees you. For me he recommend a french trilby. He says this is because I’m tall and I have a long face so I would carry it off well. He places a black velour trilby onto my head. I fall in love. I tell him I don’t even notice it on. He says ‘You see…that’s the trick.’
He didn’t even need to measure my head. He guessed just by looking at me that I would measure 58 centimeters. I know huge head right! And he was bang on the money.
How would you describe the type of person who buys one of your hats?
I’ve a broad range of customers. There are those going to the races such as Cheltenham. This is a big market. I like my hats to be something that someone can wear every day or to the races or to an event. Generally the people who wear them are people who want to look classic and stylish. They don’t want to look too flamboyant but there is the old expression that Hats turn heads! Nowadays a lot more people especially men are experimenting with colour. It’s nice to spot a hat I’ve created on someone out and about. It may have been one I’ve created years before.
Where do you take inspiration from when creating a hat?
I take inspiration from all sorts of places from trade shows to women on the street. I travel a lot and recently I was admiring the decor of a London hotel. I was sitting in the breakfast room looking around. I liked the walls, I liked the pillars, I liked the lights. I turned my head to see the light shades upside down and thought wow that’s a gorgeous hat. So I took a photo of it and now it’s something in the pipeline that I’m working on.
While I’m with John he takes five phone calls. He apologizes but this is his busiest time with race week in a matter of days. The phone is going non stop so he cannot afford to take a break. This is a milliner in high demand. At one stage he begins speaking French on the phone. He has gone global with orders being sent out all across the world.
With so many hats being manufactured I imagine he has a big team of people working with him. I’m wrong. He make every single hat himself in his factory. It’s all John Shevlin. This is incredible. His dedication and passion for his trade beams out from every story and detail he tells me.
When you buy one of his fine hats at no extra cost it will be made with your exact head measurements so it will fit you perfectly.
How should someone go about picking a hat? Is there a science to it? Do certain hats suit certain heads?
I’m always advocating as hats being fun. Play around with them. Try on a variety. You should feel happy in it. The trick to finding a hat that fits you perfectly is that when it’s on you shouldn’t notice it. Hats are meant to be noticed by other people not the wearer. If you don’t feel the hat on your head it means it fits perfectly. It’s like buying a pair of shoes, hats need to be comfortable. You’re not going to be confident if you have to keep putting your hand up to your head to fix your hat.
What way should you wear a hat?
It’s all in the tilt. Ladies tilt to cover the left eye and gents the opposite. There’s an expression my father use to use;
”He’s wearing it on the Kildare side.”
This means on the right hand side. Whatever way you angle the hat will completely change how it looks. Some people wear it straight on, some tilt it covering an eye which adds mystery. Some people wear it sitting on the back of the head. Whatever you’re comfortable with is the way to wear it.
Above I’m wearing the Pork Pie hat, one of Johns own designs. He tells me this particular style is a favourite of musicians. It is meant to be worn sitting on the back of the head. Once it’s on I notice that well I don’t notice it! This again means it fits perfect.
Which of your hats would be your favourite?
One of my favourites is also a bestseller which came about by accident. I was doing a totally different shape, using black and the block I was working on got stained. I took a break and thought God I have to clean that block, then I thought hang on a second. The line that the dirt had made was interesting and a nice shape…so I made one off the block again, tweaked it, made the mock up, got it right and took it over to my block maker in England. I had the block made and that was it. From a bit of dirt came one of my top selling hats!
What advice would you give someone looking at becoming a milliner?
There are a lot of milliners around Ireland and numerous millinery courses such as one in The Grafton Academy. I myself am mostly self taught. I learnt my trade from my father and absorbed so much growing up in my fathers factory. The factory also produced womens clothing so I come from a mass production point of view rather than making one off hats. It’s hard work and working for yourself is really long hours but it’s worth it.
From spending time with John I’ve come to realize that there aren’t too many rules when it comes to what hat you choose. I confess that I sometimes wear hats meant for men and that I can’t tell the difference! If you’re wondering the difference between men’s and ladies hats, you’ll notice on a ladies hat the bow will be on the right side of the hat. (I’ll remember this by thinking women are always right!-kidding!) John assures me that wearing a style meant for a man is perfectly acceptable.
”Only today I had a gentleman in looking for a hat to get married in. He liked a particular hat which is actually designed for ladies. I showed him the same style of hat in a different material and he decided it was perfect. It’s what you like at the end of the day.”
And sadly it had come to the end of my day with Mr Shevlin. Knowing how busy he is I let him lock up his shop and suddenly he gets another call just as we say goodbye. Another customer on their way to collect their bespoke John Shevlin Original. They don’t realize what a treat is in store for them.
You can buy John Shevlin hats from his studio in Cows Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin 8.
They are also available in Arnotts department Store on Henry Street in Dublin 1.
Until August 16th Johns hat are also on sale in Brown Thomas as part of CREATE which is in its 5th year celebrating Irish Designers. I have a feeling they’ll want to keep his hats around long after that date. The only genuine maker of the Panama hat in Ireland needs to be stocked in Brown Thomas. Along with his other beautiful designs. It just makes sense.
Shevlin hats are available in several outlets around the country and are exported worldwide.
For further information please visit www.johnshevlin.ie