TORONTO _ The maker of Canada’s most iconic hat wants to reintroduce itself.
No longer content with solely being known as the purveyor of your grandfather’s favourite wide-brimmed beige chapeau, the chief executive of Tilley Endurables says the company is undergoing a much-needed facelift.
This year, Tilley, which still manufactures all its products in Canada except for socks, plans on expanding its new winter toque and baseball cap lines globally.
CEO Andrew Prendergast says the company is proud its signature sailing hat is a top pick among Gulf War soldiers and British royalty but it’s critical for it to get in favour with new, younger customers.
“It is impossible to go out and tell consumers you’re cool or you’re relevant,” he said during a recent interview at Tilley’s headquarters in Toronto. “You can’t do it.”
Prendergast says success will instead come by taking the authenticity and the innovation in the brand and getting it in the hands of more 35-year-old outdoor enthusiasts.
“They’ll be able to see the quality, craftsmanship that goes into the product, the design elements that go into the product. We’ll earn their trust by making the best.”
In addition to baseball caps, Tilley’s new styles include merino wool beanies, faux fur toques with interchangeable pompoms and newsboy caps, which are priced between $50 to $70. They’ve all been exclusively available in Canada in a limited supply since the fall.
Prendergast believes consumers will pay for the Tilley brand if they know they are getting a well-made, high quality hat that carries a lifetime warranty. Per the company’s policy, customers who lose their hats within two years of purchase can have them replaced at a 50 per cent discount.
The company’s launch of their line of baseball caps has been one of its most controversial moves, Prendergast says. Some long-time employees argued it couldn’t be defined as a Tilley hat since it doesn’t have a full brim, a factor the company addressed by offering the option of a cape for those who want the full coverage.
Tilley’s products are currently sold online and in 7,000 stores in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., the European Union, Australia, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.
Prendergast says the company is looking at entering as many as three more markets this year.
“We want to broaden our approach around the world with a larger distribution model, more digital channels,” he said.
“Most people think of Tilley as one hat. Most people used to think of Chuck Taylor (shoes) as Converse. I’m not suggesting that this (hat) is going to take the rock ‘n’ roll community by storm as Chuck Taylor has, but there is tremendous value in having such an iconic silhouette that exists at the top of the price brand that is universally accepted as the No. 1 hat in the category.”
Prendergast has been in the top job for a little over a year after Tilley was acquired by Re:Capital, a subsidiary of U.K.-based private Hilco Capital, which specializes in investing in distressed companies.
Wendy Evans, a retail consultant at Evans & Company, said Tilley is making the right move in expanding its product line and making items that are more fashion-conscious.
“They can still provide a long-lived product that is not fashion-forward but is updated and somewhat more on trend,” she said. “People are going to buy Tilley products because they last a long time. They don’t want to have anything too fashion-forward because it’ll go out of style.”
Retail analyst Jim Danahy says there is a market for high-end toques and baseball caps. The trick will be if these hats are functional but stylish enough to appeal to all ages.
“The question will be, ‘Have they chosen items relative to a younger generation that can transcend perceptions that they’re a brand for baby boomers?”’ said Danahy, who is the CEO of retail advisory firm Customer Lab.
Company founder Alex Tilley invented the sailing hat that would become their trademark product in the 1980s after he failed to find one that wouldn’t blow off his head and wouldn’t sink if it fell overboard.
Throughout the years, the hat has been loved by the likes of Prince Philip, famed explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and Canadian soldiers during the Gulf War, who sometimes dyed the light coloured hat with coffee to make it more camouflaged.
Legend has it the hat’s material is so tough that it had been eaten by an elephant three times and survived its digestive tract only to be worn once again.
“The next septuagenarian Tilley enthusiast exists out there,” said Prendergast. “The DNA that we have in the business and in our product is sufficient to capture their imagination.”