Pierre Huvet’s move into hat-making was born of necessity when he could not find the right one to wear himself.
During his arts course at university, he longed to turn up to class in a hat, but each time he tried one on, he found it better suited to shop mannequin heads than his own.
He particularly coveted an Indiana Jones hat, his childhood hero. Having ordered one online, however, he was disappointed to discover it was so badly shaped when it arrived that it looked more like John Steed’s hat in The Avengers.
There was only one thing for it – to take an iron and sort it out himself.
“And that’s how I made my first hat,” he said.
Little did he know that the shop he would eventually open in Chantilly, Oise, days before Covid hit would soon be buzzing with orders and getting noticed by US competitors.
Visiting Oddchap Bespoke Hats is like stepping out of a time machine.
Mr Huvet, in his late 20s but dressed a century older in a long coat, top hat, braces and sporting an elegant moustache, epitomises French people as they now exist only within grandparents’ memories or history books.
The workshop also channels France circa World War One.
Wooden-clad and with sewing machines dating back to 1916, it evokes a world pre-mass production, where craftsmen were still the go-to people for good hats.
The only clues that France has since moved on are the modern Philips irons he uses and the 3D-printing lessons he signed up for to make hat blocks tailored to individual head measurements – the ‘bespoke’ element of his company name.
Other than that, Mr Huvet works the old way, which means that each hat takes roughly 24 hours – spread over five to six days – to make by hand to the customer’s individual specifications and measurements.
Despite his French roots, the savoir-faire and imagery in his hat-making process owes a debt to the United States.
He starts from a wide-brimmed rabbit or beaver-skin hat that he places on a block. Steam from an iron allows him to shape it to the client’s head.
The hat is then rubbed with sandpaper to give it a soft touch before Mr Huvet torches it to get rid of any remaining loose fibres, a technique borrowed from American craftsmen.
Final steps include crafting leather strips, sewing ribbons and inner linings, and polishing the edges.
Student to entrepreneur
“I have stopped counting how many hats I have destroyed,” said Mr Huvet, who perfected his technique on his own hats at university before friends took an interest and started ordering them.
“I was consumed by a sort of fire to be able to replicate the hats I saw,” he said.
He finished his studies and set up his company in late 2019, initially selling through a website and promoting his work on Facebook and Instagram.
Prices start from €260 and his order book is now full of French and American clients.
His Indiana Jones hat is particularly popular as Americans are accustomed to burnished hats, he said.
Customer attitudes are changing
He has also benefited from a shift in consumer attitudes.
Many are looking more closely at a firm’s ecological credentials and the longevity of the product.
Hats are expected to last long enough to be passed down from generation to generation.
“And I think people are realising that sportswear is less classy than a suit,” he said, adding that a preference for sharp dressing has helped the hat regain a place in men’s wardrobes.
France does not offer schools dedicated to the craft of a chapelier, but several organisations, such as Onisep and the Institut national des métiers d’art (Inma), have courses where the craft is linked to that of a modiste (dressmaker/milliner).
According to Mr Huvet, the decline of hat-making set in as cars gradually grew smaller and John F Kennedy ended the tradition of US presidents wearing them, among various other reasons.
He has high hopes for a renaissance in the industry, helped largely by modern media. His own Indiana Jones- style iconography has 21st century counterparts in the video game Red Dead Redemption or Paramount Network’s drama Yellowstone.
“Of course I want my own hats to be featured on screen,” he said, insisting France is well placed to make Spaghetti Western equivalents, with its wealth of costume professionals and suitable filming locations.
“What are we waiting for? Let’s make the French Western happen!”