Tilley Founder Favours Victoria

tilley hat

Alex Tilley, founder of Tilley Endurables and inventor of the iconic hat that bears his name, was thrilled to be in Victoria May 26 to help celebrate the opening of the company’s latest store, on Lower Yates Street.

“Victoria is our favourite city,” he says in an exclusive interview with Douglas.
“It’s probably the most beautiful city in Canada, and I feel at home with the people here. Victoria was our first choice for a new store location.”
Born in Mount Albert, Ontario, in 1938, Tilley has B.C. ties. He earned a degree in art from UBC, and his wife, Hilary Clark Cole, was born right here in the capital.
As a young man, Tilley embarked on a series of unsuccessful ventures — bank teller, printing press operator, etc. “I was basically unemployable,” he says — before finding steady work for a dozen years as a sort of rental agent for artwork, rotating pieces in and out of businesses. That enterprise allowed him to work in the morning, then spend afternoons pursuing his love of sailing.
And then came that fateful day in 1980 when he decided he needed a better boating hat.
Fast-forward a few decades and a few thousand models of hats, and the white-bearded, soft-spoken Tilley has tested his wares in 53 countries and lost count of how many cities he’s visited. His home base is in Gravenhurst, in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country, but he relishes a good trip to the West Coast, as he has a brother who lives in Vancouver. (After our chat, he was due to visit Fisherman’s Wharf for fish ‘n’ chips and a kayaking session.)
“The people have always liked us in Victoria,” he says. “They’ve been great customers.”
He was expecting plenty of banter with customers new and old alike at the Victoria store, site of Tilley’s latest hat-signing event. For every hat signed, the company donates $5 to the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life program.
The fastidious Tilley logs each and every signing session in every city he visits. His last Victoria session, in December 2004 at the Fairmont Empress, drew 287 fans of his haberdashery.
“There’s a vast number of people in Victoria who are the kind of people who like what we do,” Tilley says.
“People who wear the Tilley hat, especially in far-off foreign countries, tend to strike up conversations when they spot each other. That, as far as I know, is unique. Friendships are born from it, and that, for me, is the most important thing about travel: not the mountains and lakes, but the people you meet.”