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26 January 2016 | News
In 1980 Alexander Tilley, a Canadian yachtsman who had a penchant for sailing Lake Ontario (in any weather) had a problem. His yachting headgear wasn’t good enough. Specifically, he wanted it to float if it fell into the water, he wanted it to tie under his chin so it didn’t fall into the water in the first place, and he wanted it to stand up the most inclement weather that Canada’s climate could throw at him. He also wanted it to be comfy, look good and launder well. Quite a checklist, and nothing at the time ticked all, or even most, of his boxes.
So he set about to make such a perfect hat himself. Contacting a local milliner, he had a prototype sewn up, but immediately ran into problems. Namely, the type of canvas that he needed to use to ensure the durability he demanded was too tough for the milliner’s needles to go through it. Just as seriously, the material shrank when it got wet. Both of these problems were disastrous from the point of view of manufacturing a new type of hat, but luckily Tilly learned that if he pre-shrank the canvas by boiling and steaming it. During a sailing trip to the newly-independent Central American country of Belize Tilley completed the design.
Although Alexander Tilley was well-liked and noted for his vibrant personality, he had (even by his own admission) little talent for running a successful business. His career to this point had been somewhat colourful and checkered, having been fired from a sales job for “sheer incompetence” and a banking job because he was “too full of p##s and vinegar to survive in banking”. Other ventures included selling printing presses for a year and fronting a short-lived tutoring business. This lack of career clarity and success didn’t hold him back, however, and Alexander soon displayed a talent for marketing after he began to sell his hats from home for a very modest profit. The fledgling hat business received a boost early on when a leading US yachting magazine wrote an editorial on him. Strong sales at the Toronto International Boat Show also boosted early Tilley visibility and success.
In 1984 Tilly founded the Tilley Endurables company and began to sell hats via mail order from his basement. This was successful, soon he had sold 20,000 hats, sometimes trading hats for magazine adverts. Tilley added skirts and trousers to his range in 1985: these featured the “anti-pickpocket” security pockets which are still available today. Around this point, Tilley adverts began to focus on an “adventure / travel lifestyle” which is a strategy that continues to this day.
By 1996 Tilley had expanded beyond Canada to markets in Australia, Japan, the UK and New Zealand, and by 1998 the company had added yet more lines to its offerings, such as polo shirts and rugby shirts. Around this time, it became fashionable for younger people to take up hiking and other hobbies previously associated with older people, and so many of the company’s original “adventure” lines received a great boost in demand from this younger set.
All Tilley products have always been made in Canada – the company has resisted the temptation to outsource production to East Asia. The only exception are a range of socks, which are made in Iowa, a US state relatively close to the Canadian border.
Tilley products are guaranteed for life. The company replaces any hat either found defective or worn out.
Posted by Mike Small.