‘President Higgins chose to wear one of my Panama hats’

Small Business Future ProofJohn Shevlin’s Shevlin Millinery has also made hats for actors Stephen Fry and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor

John Shevlin still uses many of the machines with which his father Patrick once manufactured hats.

Many once sat in the garment factory of Arnotts – the department store that once again sells Shevlin hats.

Originally a manufacturer of women's hats when it was founded in the 1960s in north Dublin, John Shevlin has reinvented his father's business but uses his own name rather than the original label of P Shevlin Limited.

Shevlin snr started out as a pig farmer, John’s father Patrick was a keen golfer and was playing golf with one of the buyers from Arnotts who suggested he should get into the garment business. Patrick sold the pigs, converted the buildings in Malahide and installed central heating and wooden floors.

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“He did appreciate style but he was also way ahead of his time and a true businessman,” says John Shevlin.

"I learnt the trade as a child on the factory floor and, by the time my father retired and ceased trading in the 1980s, I was already working in other aspects of clothing management having obtained a scholarship in clothing production. At that time, I was working for Janelle Wear – a company which employed more than 1,000 people."

In his father's time, the company only made ladies' hats and was making up to 1,000 hats a week for Arnotts retail and for their wholesale department. Patrick Shevlin also sold to other wholesalers in the city such as Ferrier Pollock, which was based in South William Street.

“I have seen many changes in the business,” says John Shevlin. “When the Catholic Church decreed that women no longer had to wear hats in church in the 1970s, it started the downturn in the fashion for hats.

“And, in the 1980s, hair perms and hair colouring also became fashionable and women no longer wanted to wear hats to cover their hair.”

Shevlin’s father had made hats for Aer Lingus in the past and, when the designer Ib Jorgensen was commissioned to design the uniform for the airline in 1986, John Shevlin proposed that he would produce the hats.

“I contacted Ib Jorgensen and produced some samples for him. I got the contract for the job, and designed and made the hats.”

The business was then put on hold for a number of years but Shevlin says that the desire to make hats and to reinvigorate the business was “always burning” inside him.

On his return to the trade he began to focus on producing men’s hats as well as women’s. He now makes many styles, including trilbies, and is the only producer of real Panama hats in Ireland.

" I was honoured when President Higgins chose to wear one of my Panama hats in black to the commemorative ceremonies in Gallipoli last year," says Shevlin, whose hats have also been worn by Stephen Fry and by actor Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, and have featured many times in fashion editorials in magazines and newspapers.

Shevlin’s hat blocks are made by Boon and Lane in England – one of the only surviving hat block makers in the UK where blocks cost upwards of €600 to buy.

“I remember my father going over to Boon and Lane to get the blocks made. It was very nostalgic when I went back there to commission my own hat blocks to think that my father walked the same floors.”

Shevlin makes a range of hats for Arnotts, for the Cow’s Lane Designer Studio in Temple Bar which he shares with a number of other independent designers, and for a range of boutiques countrywide.

He also provides a made-to-measure service whereby he can make a hat to the clients specification in terms of style, colour, size and trim.

“In my father’s time, there was a huge rag trade in Dublin – he supplied garments as well as hats and probably had about 20 people working for him. All the equipment and the machinery I still have is from my father’s time, indeed some goes back to the 1800s.

“There’s a lot of history there,” says Shevlin whose recent hat-making demonstrations at the capital’s 1916 commemoration celebrations drew huge crowds of interested spectators.

"People these days are increasingly conscious of what they are spending their money on and want to spend it on something that is made for them by the maker," says Shevlin, who is also the official James Joyce look-a-like for the James Joyce Centre.

Shevlin has participated in Showcase for a number of years and, in 2014, was awarded Best Accessories Product in Showcase by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland for his Panama hat.

This year Shevlin made the decision to move from the Creative Island designer space to the Industries Hall at the expo and his hunch paid off with a surge in interest from European and American buyers.

“I believe that I got back into the business at the right time,” says Shevlin.

“Things are going from strength to strength. I’m concentrating on export as well as domestic retail at the moment and things are getting busier and busier.”