The function of fashion
Nelson-based company Lillie & Cohoe is in the business of helping North American customers express their personal style
Far from the pressures of metropolitan life, a Nelson, B.C., company is producing hats with cosmopolitan flair. Sounds like the best of both worlds, right?
Liz Cohoe, owner and creative director of Lillie & Cohoe, is proud that the company designs, makes and ships its high-end hats out of its Nelson studio to shops throughout North America (and even to the Korean market for a time).
In the Kootenays, Lillie & Cohoe hats are available at Streetclothes Named Desire in Nelson, Deadwood Junction in Greenwood and Revival Boutique in Rossland (the latter shop sells older goods off-price).
Cohoe shared her ideas on the function of fashion with Kootenay Business.
I was interested to learn that you have broken into the Korean market, as well as selling in Canada and the U.S. How did that come about?
We were solicited by the company and we did sell in Korea for four years but have not since 2010—the company changed hands and the focus shifted in the hat stores. It was somewhat onerous to negotiate, and did boost sales but did not boost profitability. It also taxed our capabilities in numbers of production, again not bringing greater profitability.
Did you notice any differences in the type of hats that customers in Korea gravitated to, or was it similar to your Canadian/American market?
With Korea there were differences—less casual, more interest in formed shapes and heavily branded hats. The Asian market in luxury goods is strongly influenced by major marketing of brands.
Are there any other regional differences in what your customers want?
In the North American market, we see many differences regionally. Most notable is the difference in interpretation of casual. For instance, West Coast casual is more hiking and outdoors looking; Midwest casual is still urban but differentiated by colour and texture, less by shape.
I'm guessing you see fashion as more than just a frivolous pursuit. Can you describe its function/importance to you?
Fashion is less interesting to me than personal style. This is likely why hats interest me. There are many reasons to see that even fashion is not frivolous, as it rules huge amounts of commerce in all areas. People always want change. Personal style develops and can change at our own pace as we are ready for it. It is also more satisfying to the individual. Fashion is useful in introducing new ideas to all of us and we choose from that what is for us.
When I was a little girl, everyone wore hats, but by the time I grew up they had gone out of vogue. Hats seem to have made a comeback. Any theories why?
Hats have been making a comeback for decades actually, ever since they went out of vogue. Lillie & Cohoe was born in the early '90s and at that time we found women very interested again in what a hat could do for their personal expression. Perhaps that brief time when we declined to wear hats allowed people to make a choice about hats. Now there is great curiosity and interest from people to see “what do I look like in this hat” and “how do I feel in this one." People get that a hat is a useful prop in the expression of their personality. A hat is also a functional piece of anyone’s wardrobe, and the variety of ways to fulfill that functionality is huge now.
Who inspires you?
In the world of hats, there are many designers whose work interests me, for example Karen Henriksen in England, Mirjam Nuver in the Netherlands, Lola in New York. I have not seen too much that is like our work. Most are more dressy, event pieces.
Do you have any particular mentors?
My pattern-making instructor at Ryerson (University in Toronto) was and is a strong figure in formation of skills. Her knowledge of the apparel industry and how all facets of production are essential and need to be respected remains with me to this day.
We regularly read The HAT Magazine (out of London, England), which is full of people like us whose world revolves around hats. Creativity abounds!
When you were six years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Had no plans for growing up, still don’t! I did, however, like to cut out fabric in shapes mimicking those pieces cut for clothes as my mother sewed a great deal and there was always something being cut and sewn, with a pattern or without. Understanding three-dimensional shape and how to achieve that through cut pieces has been part of my life ever since.
What's the best compliment you or your business has received?
We appreciate and love the compliments we receive from women who wear our hats. Statements about our customer care, our quality of making, and reports of the compliments they receive on an ongoing basis really make us proud. It makes our work meaningful and validates the trouble we go to in maintaining our edge in style, quality and consistency.
How do you stay current; on top of trends in the industry?
Our main business (about 80 per cent of sales) is B2B (business-to-business), servicing retail stores. But we use our B2C (business-to-customer) component of the business (about 20 per cent of sales) to stay in touch with the actual wearers of our hats by going to high-end retail shows in winter and spring where we meet the women who love and wear our hats. We get information on what people want to do with hats, what they are comfortable with, what they are searching for. We test shapes and textures.
There is, of course, an element of fashion in hats, but before that can begin to apply, the hat must flatter the person wearing it. So interpreting a trend in fashion is secondary to what a person needs in fit and personal connection with the shape. You see trends where everyone wears a current hat shape, and some look really good in it, most only so-so. Often this initial interest will develop further and a person learns more about their own style.
There is some information to be gleaned through mainstream fashion magazines, but our primary source of hatrelated info in the larger world is The HAT Magazine. This is a trade publication and is chock full of news, pictures, reports on trade shows, styling, leading hat makers and designers, and lots of design information. There is also an organization in the U.S., based in New York, that disseminates hat information, more related to larger production houses.
How do you track customer satisfaction and how do you use this information?
We meet face-to-face with the women who wear our hats. For keeping up with stores, we talk with our agents for feedback on sell-through, and also talk personally with key customers such as hat stores to find out sales trends, especially on new shapes. Sometimes we give product information to assist in sales; other times we see that a style is just not friendly to a self-serve sales model.
In the old days there would be a knowledgeable staff person to assist in the purchase of a hat. This is a knowledge base that is slowly being rebuilt in hat stores and some boutiques. We are considering use of video on our site to assist in understanding the hats.
What book is currently on your nightstand or in your e-reader?
I have two or three on the go—currently my reference for inspiration, On Managing Yourself (essays from Harvard Business Review); Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; and a novel on my e-reader, The Grand Tree (not sure if that is the exact title)—seems to be mythical, sort of post-Roman Britain—just starting it.
Anything else at all you'd like to add?
I would like to summarize something about the simplicity of Lillie & Cohoe to round out the picture of the company. We design, make and ship all our product from our Nelson studio. The work is focused, and we care about what we do. Some of us have been working together for 12 to 17 years. We feel great satisfaction in connecting our work to another’s joy in ownership of what we do.