Three-thousand-five-hundred top hats. From floor to ceiling: Beaver and silk, grey, black, red. Stacked, boxed, and balanced.
In London’s fashionable Chelsea, just off the King’s Road, down a short flight of iron stairs, lives and works the man some call the Mad Hatter. He also answers to Martin Ellis Jones, and he is the proprietor of Hetherington Hats. Whatever you choose to call him, every year for about six weeks his small shop/living space is packed with the full spectrum of British society, all clamoring to buy a top hat, for the Royal Ascot.
Like strawberries at Wimbledon and Pimm’s at Henley, the Royal Ascot races simply wouldn’t be the same without the proper headgear. If you are lucky enough to get into the Royal Enclosure, gentlemen must – absolutely must – wear a morning coat (grey or black), tie, vest. Oh, and a top hat of course. But these sleek, high, round fashion statements are from another era, and are neither cheap nor easy. If you don’t have one, the approaching social event of the year can be a frustrating deadline. Unless you know the man to know.
Almost twenty years ago after a career in advertising, and then as an antiques dealer, Martin Ellis Jones donned the role of what the Daily Mail has described as the “Debonair hat supplier to the gentry.” His passion for his product is clear. He will rebuild almost any damaged hat. Even a hat run over by a friend’s car isn’t terminal, he says.
He uses a conformature; a machine shaped like a jelly mound with movable keys like an old manual typewriter. This contraption is fitted on your head and then adjusted to record the precise shape. He will then steam the hat and the brim to your exact specifications. His stock spans some 200 years from the early 19th century; from the squat and sporty to the true high hat. Prices range from about 1,000 pounds to a stunning 25,000 pounds.
His customers have ranged from the Aga Kahn to Queen rocker Brian May, to the occasional Spice Girl. And yet with his web address Toffs-r-Us you get the sense that while he loves the hats, and appreciates the customers he maintains a quiet sense of humour about all the pomp and circumstance, perhaps as he gently fits your new topper in place, he does so with a subtle wink.