The Mad Hatter of Mount Albert - Alex Tilley

By Blair Matthews 

 

By Blair Matthews

You might not recognize former Mount Albert resident Alex Tilley if you passed him on the street, but if you were both wearing one of his signature Tilley hats, you might pause, strike up a conversation and become fast friends.

 

And that’s how a hat has been fostering friendship in countries around the world for 35 years.

To understand the story of Alex Tilley and Tilley Endurables we should start from the beginning.

 

Alex was born at York County Hospital (now Southlake) in 1938 and spent at least some of his formative years growing up in Mount Albert. His father  Joseph managed the Dominion Bank in town and the Tilley family lived in the apartment on the premises.

 

Fond memories of his childhood abound when Alex thinks back to a few incidents that his neighbours likely didn’t appreciate as much as he did. Like, for instance, peeing in the next door neighbour’s well. “I got hell for that,” he laughs.

 

And one afternoon while he was hanging around with his friend Paul (Mainprize) in a nearby barn, they found trouble in the form of an old horse-drawn hearse with glass windows all the way around it. Alex climbed inside and they ended up breaking the window.

 

On the way home, the two boys ran into the elder Tilley who was none too pleased to hear about the broken window. “My father had to apologize to Mr. Theaker, who was the funeral director at the time,” he remembers.

No word on if he faced consequences due to the incident.

 

When he was 8-years-old, his father was transferred to a bank in Kitchener and Alex’s time in Mount Albert came to an end. But it was a time in his life that has always stuck with him.

 

His parents must also have felt that way... both Joseph Tilley and his wife Audrey are buried in the Mount Albert Cemetery (they died in 1986 and 1989 respectively).

 

A Hat is Born

It was Alex’s love of boats and sailing that led to his biggest life adventure. He had been working as an art consultant in Toronto a few hours a day running a mobile operation that rented Canadian artwork to businesses. Many of his summer afternoons were spent sailing or working on his boat. In the landlocked winter months, he strived to make a sailing hat that was worthy of a boat owner. He’d never managed to find a good quality hat that he liked, so he figured he’d make his own.

 

Back then, he didn’t know much about making hats, but he knew what a high quality hat should be: something stylish and fashionable, durable, practical, provide shade and sun protection, oh... and it should float too.

“I never ever thought the hat could be a business because I thought the maximum price a person would pay for a cotton hat is $16 bucks,” he says.

 

The cost to make the hat in 1980, his first year of production, was about $15.50.

Alex started peddling his hats at area boat shows, raising the price at every show until eventually he could afford to wholesale his hats  to stores willing to carry them.

 

He launched Tilley Endurables in 1980 and sold his hats via mail order from the basement of his Toronto home.

Four years later, he began manufacturing and selling travel and adventure clothing as well as hats.

 

By 1992, Tilley Endurables was selling about 4,000 Tilley hats each week compared to 2,500 hats weekly just one year earlier.

 

The company experienced amazing growth, but also went through its share of growing pains, internal struggles, management changes, and financial setbacks.

 

Through it all, 30 years later, a whole line of Tilley hats and clothing are available in 3,800 retail locations in 18 countries. And the majority of Tilley products are still proudly made in Canada.

 

A Tilley hat has many unique qualities over and above what you’d expect from a hat – including a secret compartment in the crown suitable for stashing cash, a credit card, or I.D. It also has a patented sliding knot wind cord (chin strap) designed to secure the hat from the front and back. Unsure of how a wind cord might work, Alex was laying in bed on a Sunday morning and the idea of using two knots suddenly came to him. He raced to his workshop in the basement, grabbed a string, tried it, and it worked!

 

In the early days of Tilley hat production, he paid his young daughter, Allison, 5 cents for every wind cord knot she’d make on the hats.

 

Each Tilley hat also comes with a four-page owner’s manual.

 

Elephant Eats Tilley Hat... 3 Times!

Of the many jobs he could oversee at Tilley Endurables, Alex’s favourite was always the marketing side. He wrote many of the advertising campaigns, slogans, and promotional verbiage. He also could be spotted modelling Tilley Endurables clothing in the pages of their catalogue.

 

And like all great marketing geniuses, he has a favourite ad.

 

Elephant trainer Michael Hackenberger of the Bowmanville Zoo had his Tilley hat snatched from his head and eaten by an elephant.

 

Three times.

 

Hackenberger would eventually find his hat after the elephant ‘passed it’, clean it off, and carry on. Alex was so enamoured by the story that he used it in print advertising extolling the virtues of the Tilley hat.

 

Tilley Endurables offered Hackenberger a new hat hoping they could include his old hat in their museum; he wouldn’t give up the old one. Alex was secretly thrilled (and eventually he was able to convince Hackenberger to give up the hat for a display in their flagship retail store in Toronto).

 

The elephant ad encompassed everything Alex envisioned his products could be, and then some.

 

Quality is Most Important

When he says that Tilley hats are of the highest quality, he isn’t kidding.

“Roughly 25 people actually touch your hat during manufacture,” Alex reveals. The pricetag of a typical Tilley hat reflects that amount of labour which begs the question: why aren’t the hats made elsewhere to save on production costs?

 

For a brief moment in time, that notion was considered, albeit in the form of a lesser-quality model with the same Tilley name behind it. Alex figured it was inevitable that someone would bring out a knock-off hat that looked like their signature hats, so why not do it themselves?

 

He was concerned about the high cost of manufacture, so he came up with the Lifetimer: International Challenger brand... ‘Designed in Canada, Made in China, Proven around the world’.

It wasn’t a plan that came to fruition.

 

“I couldn’t get it done well enough,” Alex admits. “The quality  was crap and we scrapped it. We do make the best in the world and that took me a long time to actually realize – and being Canadian you don’t want to (brag and) say those things.”

 

What other product could possibly compare to the quality and craftmanship that goes into making every Tilley hat? “Rolls Royce,” he says with a laugh.

 

As it turns out, customer service is also one of Tilley Endurables’ most important selling points.

They have always stood behind their hats by offering a lifetime guarantee on most models.

 

Bought a Tilley hat and it wore out in a year, a few years, or 20 years? Send the hat back to them and Tilley Endurables will replace it free of charge (they do ask for a nominal shipping payment). Did you lose your hat or have it stolen? The company insures your hat against loss or theft for 2 years from the date of purchase and if that happens, they’ll give you 50% of the value of the original hat towards a replacement.

 

Alex has often advised customers about where to keep their bill of sale so that in the event of a hat loss, they won’t be scrambling to find the receipt. “Place the hat’s insurance policy or receipt in your dresser’s lowest drawer,” he says. “If you forget where it is, phone and we’ll remind you.”

 

Discovering the World

An avid traveller, Alex has taken his hats on adventures to more than 50 countries. As a memento of his journeys, he has a dollar bill from each of those countries in his collection – a small reminder of all that he’s seen and places he’s been.

 

In 2015 after 30+ years at the helm, Alex decided it was time to retire. But he wasn’t interested in unloading the company to the first potential buyer that came along. First and foremost, he wanted Tilley products to continue to be made in Canada. He also wanted the new owners to carry on his legacy and grow the business in ways he hadn’t yet dreamed of.

 

His surprise announcement came in the form of a January newspaper ad in The Globe & Mail with the heading: “I am 77 and it’s time.”

 

Six months later, a deal was reached for Re:Capital, the Canadian arm of Hilco Capital, to buy Tilley Endurables for an undisclosed amount.

 

“Alex Tilley has built a great business and a very strong brand around phenomenal products over the last 30 years. We’re delighted to pick up the mantle and draw on Re:Capital’s expertise and resources to grow the business further and take Tilley to new markets around the world,” said Paul McGowan, chief executive officer of Re:Capital, in a July 2015 press release.

 

For Alex, some peace of mind that his ‘baby’ is in capable hands and the iconic Canadian hats will continue to be made where they were first conceived.

 

The Tilley Endurables brand and the products they’ve created goes far beyond high quality garments, and Alex knows it. He has personally experienced the aura surrounding the Tilley hat many times.

 

“Many friendships have been formed because of the hat,” Alex says. “Strangers talking with each other... it’s very common in foreign countries. It’s the only item I know that people buy and it induces strangers to chat each other up. I can think of nothing else. It’s wonderful because it shows that Tilley hat owners are part of a special club – and that is the best thing of all about the hat... the friendships it creates.”

 

There’s no doubt that Alex Tilley used the power of testimonials to sell his brand to the masses (and it worked)! Here are a couple notable stories:

 

“In the spring of 1991, I bought my Tilley in Waterton Park. For eight months I enjoyed it thoroughly. Then someone broke into my truck and took fishing gear and my dear Tilley Hat. In September 2001, I had a call from a railroad worker who said he had found my Hat in a rail car. My name and phone number were still in the Hat. Too bad this Hat can’t talk. Like the proverbial cat, this Tilley came back.” - Don Fraser, Alberta

 

“My favourite purchase this summer. It is a lot for what I would pay for a hat but the reviews convinced me. I can wear it with my hair down or in a ponytail and it looks fine. I wear it while walking my dog and I wore it hiking in the Grand Canyon. I can feel the breeze on my head through the mesh. I’ve hand-washed it and it still looks new. I want my husband to replace his awful (worn) one!” - Kristin, Texas