Matthew Steeples talks to Martin Ellis Jones of Hetherington Hats about the return of the ‘topper’ as real-life drama returns to Royal Ascot in June 2022
This morning came sad news for racing fans everywhere with the death of ‘The Long Fellow’ Lester Piggott at the age of 86. Relatively tall compared to other jockeys and a trainer from 1985 onwards, this racing great was more recently found trackside at the Epsom Derby or Royal Ascot resplendent in a top hat.
Turning to the topic of such formal headwear, at lunch in the “secret garden” that is Stanley’s in Chelsea recently, the go-to-expert in ‘toppers’ that is Martin Ellis Jones of Hetherington Hats told of how hard it has been with firstly a year of cancelled and then a year of closed racing at the spectacular Royal Meeting.
In a “normal year,” Hetherington Hats sells around 100 top hats to racegoing customers with a penchant for the finest vintage to wear to Royal Ascot – amongst them the “lovely” singer Damon Albarn and Doctor Who and The Crown actor Matt Smith. For two years now, Ellis Jones has seen business down by £1 million but “looks forward to the return of his most wonderful customers” for 2022’s four-day event.
Describing his emporium as the “last stop for the curious” given the array of silk and even beaver fur hats on offer at his premises, Ellis Jones surprisingly adds that his clients have never been Russians and are, in fact, mainly those seeking “wonderful shapes in mint condition at sensible prices, all sizes.”
Pictured top – The late, great Lester Piggott (left), top hats from Hetherington Hats (centre) and Martin Ellis Jones (right).
A Question of Hats with Martin Ellis Jones
MS: “What is the oldest and most expensive top hat you’ve sold?”
MEJ: “I sold a hat made in 1825 to Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s representatives for £12,000. They also bought another for £8,000.”
MS: “What is the most fascinating hat story you can share?”
MEJ: “I once sold a pink top hat – yes, entirely pink in colour. It had been made in America for the then Prince of Wales in 1868.”
MS: “What is the best value hat you’ve sold?”
MEJ: “Compared to his wealth, the Aga Khan. I sold him a hat for £1,200 at Royal Ascot because he’d left his in his helicopter and it had already departed. It thus ensured his arrival went ahead unhindered.”
MS: “Who has been your favourite customer to date?”
MEJ: “George Goring of The Goring Hotel and Brian May, co-founder of rock band Queen. He stayed 2.5 hours and was so utterly charming.”
“Once also, the Swiss ambassador came to visit. He yodeled and so I gave him a free hat.”
MS: “And who been your least favourite?”
MEJ: “The singer Adele. She kept looking at her wrist watch and seemed like she had no interest in anything other than leaving.”