14 September 2001

HATSFORHIRE – HOWTHEY STAY AHEAD…

An eye for design, a head for business and a hat for every

occasion equals success, as Tessa Gates found

when she called in on A Head for Hats

ARE you the hat lady? It is a greeting arable farmers wife Pennie Hill is used to. Over the past nine years Pennie and her friend and business partner Ruth Chant have built up a thriving hat hire enterprise in a pretty converted dairy at East Stoke Farm.

Tucked away in the village of Stoke-sub-Hambden, Somerset, there is no passing trade but customers enjoy a visit by appointment to try on hats in unhurried privacy in a tranquil setting. "People say they really enjoy coming here," says Pennie. "Some take five minutes to choose a hat, others take two hours. Because we work by appointment clients get our best attention, and it fits round our families."

Both ladies are now grandmothers, glamorous grandmothers full of life and with a great eye for fashionable hats. Only the best will do. In their regular buying forays to hat designers in London they admit they can "spend hundreds in minutes."

"We like to find something individual and we often have hats made for us. We know what people will want," says Pennie, adding that clients have become more sophisticated in their taste over the years. "People are not frightened to choose a striking colour or design now."

"You dont get a second chance with customers, they are very discerning and want the best," says Ruth, adding that no matter what the original cost of the hat, it hires out for just £25.

When Farmlife called, there were about 350 hats on display, with more tucked away in the farmhouse. Mauves and lilacs have been the favourite colours this summer, with confections of silk organza in subtle shades of bronze and gun metal very popular too. But whatever colour a client wants they endeavour to get it and have hats specially made if necessary.

"Our hats have more interesting lives than we do," laughs Ruth. "They travel to all sorts of places including Italy, France and Spain this year. They dont just go to weddings either. They are worn at garden parties, military occasions and Henley is getting very popular."

&#42 Old stock ditched

They are ruthless about getting rid of old stock at the end of each season, and it is never sold. This year the hats are being despatched to Canada where a friend intends to use them to make some rather interesting designer lampshades.

It took about four years for the business to become profitable and even this year, when people have been put off visiting farm-based businesses because of foot-and-mouth, business has been good. "We ticked over at the start of foot-and-mouth but by the middle of May business had come back and we feel it has almost been better than other years," says Pennie. "We have been very lucky, others have had it hard this year.

"When we started out people thought we wouldnt last but we started at the top with the best hats we could get and we are still here today."

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