Why the Yorkshire flat cap has returned back into fashion
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 November 2020
The flat cap is having a moment and Yorkshire headwear hero Rhian Kempadoo is ahead of the game
When your client list includes actor, Idris Elba, boxer Anthony Joshua and HRH the Prince of Wales you can safely say your product is a success. Throw into the mix some cool, ethical and made-in-Yorkshire credentials and its hats off to success.
We’re talking the humble flat cap - and the talented artist and milliner creating this sought-after headgear is Rhian Kempadoo-Millar, from Leeds.
Her authentic flat caps have been snapped up by celebs, earned ‘must-buy’ status thanks to those chaps in the hit drama, Peaky Blinders – and have even played a part in the BBC’s ‘Back in Time For Tea’ nostalgia series.
Rhian’s flat cap fashion journey started with the question, ‘Can you still make a flat cap in Yorkshire?’ She set herself the task of finding out – and making the most of her background in fashion and textiles.
Rhian had studied art and textiles at Newcastle Art College and then spent a year doing theatre design at Central St Martins in London before working in the Caribbean for three years.
‘Choosing between being living above a KFC in London or moving to Trinidad to work on the carnival was not a difficult decision! Both my parents are from the West Indies, so I was keen to go and spend some time there,’ she says.
Whilst working in Trinidad, Rhian worked on a team that created hundreds of batik and silk painted skirts for costumes worn at the Atlanta Olympics award-winning carnival presentations. ‘It was a real school of life and creativity, I loved it.’
It wasn’t until 2010 that Rhian started making hats. She took a part-time course in millinery at Leeds College of Art. She’s always loved headwear and hats and was yearning to learn a new creative skill while raising sons, Ajuba (now 19) and Tiago (17).
‘Part of the course was about ethical fashion. We had to do a final project, so I looked into sustainability and how you can make things within your local area. The project was ‘Can you still make a Flat Cap in Yorkshire?’ says Rhian. She researched the industry, the Yorkshire mills and the decline of the textiles and manufacturing in Yorkshire. As part of her research Rhian found that it was almost impossible to find a Yorkshire flat cap that wasn’t made in China or Bangladesh. She looked in high street stores and boutiques but struggled to find a Yorkshire-made flat cap crated with Yorkshire cloth.
‘How can you possibly know the provenance of something made so far away? I thought surely it must be possible to make something much closer to home.’ With lots of encouragement from her tutor and family, so began KM Headwear.
Rhian’s Scottish Jamaican dad, who passed away when she was ten, always wore a flat cap, but not the traditional brown or green tweed. His choice of bright colours, coupled with Rhian’s Caribbean heritage and experiences working in Trinidad, are the inspiration for her range of striking caps. ‘I took something conventional but wanted to give it an edge in honour of my Dad. I love to bring together the vibrant colours from my artwork and create exciting designs around a classic Yorkshire style hat.’
Setting up a business where Rhian could work from home whilst raising her boys was perfect. She’d been travelling a lot with her freelance costume design work and was finding it hard to juggle this with family time.
One of her work contacts offered to give her a £5000 start-up loan. Rhian spent a year researching, sampling and finding local manufacturers. Her son, Ajuba created her first website as part of a project for his business studies at school, and in July 2013 she sold her first hat.
‘I can remember running down the stairs shouting and telling the boys we’d sold a hat – I’d only made 30 to see if they’d sell. It was a great achievement for us all!’
Rhian admits the business has been a steady journey of learning and growth. She wanted to avoid big investments or risk for the family, but she says people got behind the whole ethics of her business and it’s gone from strength to strength during the last three years, helped by the hipster trend and of course, the Peaky Blinders’ love of a flat cap.
The ethics and provenance of her business have tapped into a mood too.
‘There’s so much more support now for independents, provenance and local businesses. I’ve got a great relationship with the local mills and my manufacturers. AW Hainsworth in Pudsey have been incredible in supporting me- they have been around since 1783 but understand the need to nurture us seedlings too. I love the openness and honesty you get here in Yorkshire, even in business it’s very much about family values’.
Rhian says she has a low boredom threshold so is constantly designing and loves to introduce limited editions, so her customers have lots of colours and styles to choose from. ‘My clients like it if they’re wearing one of only three or six hats. It’s more environmentally friendly too. If I get an interesting piece of cloth that’s a metre, I just make six great unique hats, rather than thousands of soulless items that are piled up in Primark.’
She can’t hide her excitement or pride when she sees her hats being worn out in public. ‘The other day I was in a queue at the supermarket and in front of me a lady was wearing one, so I had to tell her it was mine. Sometimes friends tell me they’ve seen my hats being worn in places like Bristol or Brighton, it’s something I’m very proud of. We have now sold caps in 36 different countries from Thailand to Tasmania so it’s great to see photos of customers in their caps from all over the world.’
Rhian doesn’t have plans to start making other accessories or garments because she wants to make the best possible hats she can. ‘It’s taken ten years to establish the relationships, get the designs and the finished products right. I dont want to dilute the brand, and I’ve got my hands full enough with hats, the boys and our dog, Hux!’
She does have other ambitions, however, and her next milestone will be opening her first little boutique, in Knaresborough.
‘I’m so excited. Knaresborough is the perfect location for my first shop. It’s somewhere I often go to meet one of my best friends half way for walks and a good catch up. It’s a lovely mix of young people, couples and families and the town really supports small, independent shops. I can’t wait to be one of them.”
Rhian’s Kempadoo Millar caps are available at kempadoo.com and at newly-opened The Little Flat Cap Shop, Castle Courtyard, Knaresborough.
Prices start from £55.
Clearly, we need to know more about the story behind how Idris Elba came to own one of Rhian’s hats…
‘Idris was wearing a flat cap in a photo on Twitter and someone I knew, tongue in cheek, commented that he should get a Kempadoo hat. Next thing I knew Idris was following me on Twitter and then he messaged me saying he loved the hats and sent me his stylist’s number, asking me to give her a call.’
The stylist sent Rhian a photo of the coat Idris planned to wear to the premiere of The Gunman in 2015 and asked her to make a bespoke flat cap to complement it. ‘This generated so much business for us and massively raised the profile of KM nationally and even internationally in the US.
‘It’s quite hard sometimes when you’re a small business, to prove to people that you’re authentic, especially when selling your product online. Some of my competitors are over 200 years old. It’s difficult to be taken seriously when you’re up against a company that was established in 1864! Idris’ endorsement gave people confidence in the brand and its quality. He really likes to champion small, unique brands.’