Inside Hat of Cain with Bill Cain
If only the walls could talk, would the architecture along Joo Chiat Road tell us the story of what it has been through? I sit in my Uber, stuck in the jam along the one-way traffic of Joo Chiat Road. On a Tuesday evening, the area creeps slowly into life. Restaurants are slowly packed with customers, office workers eager to end their day and tourists returning to the scattering of hotels in the vicinity from their itinerary. The stretch of Joo Chiat Road is vibrant not only from the lively foot traffic, but also from the many Peranakan shophouses that were preserved during pre-war. The facade of bright colours accompanied with intricate motifs makes up the neighbourhood’s identity.
As my ride turns at the bend, there is a sudden change of scenery, and I slip into an air of serenity surrounding Joo Chiat Terrace. And in the row of pastel-coloured terraces, I uncover the enigmatic “Hat of Cain”.
By day, Bill Cain is the managing director of an international relocation service. By night, he trades in his tie for a Panama Hat. “I wear my hat everywhere else but to work,” he chuckles.
The atmosphere in Hat of Cain is charming. One could have mistakenly walked into a time machine and get transported back into a 1970s Summer Villa in Ecuador. After 30 years in Singapore, Bill has amassed a collection of antique furniture and memorabilia with a history to match. One such artefact dear to Bill is the original signboard of Harry’s pub, that was entrusted to his care by the original owner.
Bill’s dedication to his shop is undeniable. With every hat that Bill sells, he attaches a note on how to care for it, with a personalised thank you message to the customer. While I am taking photos of the space, Bill starts to quickly adjust and rearrange all his items, making sure that everything is immaculate. He moves with precision and finesse, never missing a spot.
HNW: How did Hat of Cain start?
Bill Cain: I bought my first Panama hat in Hawaii in the 80s and it has always been my dream to have a funky hat salon that offers personalised services. My wife was instrumental in inspiring me to follow my dream and told me to stop complaining and do something about it. We were having breakfast one day, talking about the company and my daughter’s husband, then-boyfriend who is a graphic designer designed the logo for me. I wanted a hat in the logo, with an old and rustic look to it.
I started marketing on Facebook with 69 hats in stock. On the opening night, I sold 50% of them. My orders started to increase and so did my investment. Shortly, I went to Ecuador to learn more about the Panama hat, and in case you did not know, Panama hats are actually from Ecuador. When I came back, I started using Instagram and Pinterest to expand my reach. Gradually, my clientele started to grow through referrals, and now, I have the biggest Panama hat collection in Singapore. We carry the most stock and have a wide variety of Panama hats.
How would you describe your shop space?
We were at Lorong 24a Geylang, in one of the shophouse series—number 7 out of the 9 shophouses. After a year or so, we moved to Joo Chiat Terrace, our current location. The whole idea of the shop is to have an eclectic location where people can come in and experience a little bit more of the history, and learn more about the Panama hat. When they walk through those doors, we want to give people not only a wow factor, but also a sense of comfort. We want you to feel that you are walking into something a little more unique, beyond the average departmental stores.
There is a collection of old and new furniture. This old desk of mine is the centrepiece of the shop, which I got 35 years ago from the Philippines. It is full of drawers and that’s where I do all my work. We have some nice Singapore memorabilia like the first Harry’s pub sign in 1981 that was trusted under my care when the owner sold the bar. There is also an old map of Singapore, 1950s brochures of the Panama hat, and some old posters from Raffles hotel.
This artwork here is done by my wife’s great-grandfather, who was a famous artist in Denmark. This painting was done in Paris in 1910, and it was unfinished. If you look close enough, there are still some scribbles on the side. The woman in the painting is donning a hat and I figured that it would be appropriate to put it up. Our identity is a little mystic, we are not open all the time and it allows our clients to feel exclusive. I want to keep it that way. We don’t get a lot of walk-ins, but when we do, they have a sole purpose—the Panama hat.
Tell us about the products at Hat of Cain.
At Hat of Cain, we customise Panama hats. From the grades to sizes, shapes, and colours, you will definitely find a hat that suits you. The difference in each Panama hat lies in the weaving. The finer and more delicate it is, the more expensive the hat. You can always tell a Panama hat from the flower on it. The flower is where the hat starts from and they start weaving it down. If a hat does not have a flower, it is not an authentic Ecuador hat. We also carry beautiful rattan hats and felt hats from Italy. They are very soft and have suede on the inside. Our hat ranges from SGD140 to SGD1600. My last name is Cain and so we sell canes too. These are antiques with silver that I collected when I was travelling in Europe. We also have a selection of beautiful line of Italian Linen shirts designed by my good friend, Kevin Seah
Who is the Hat of Cain customer?
I meet incredible people every day. We have regulars from all kinds of industry, from ambulance drivers to professors to cello players to even a bakery owner. 60% of my clients are from Asia—Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, etc. We have Sirs, men who have been knighted, and the new president of Mongolia also wears one of my hats. We have people referring their friends or posting on Instagram. For example, Rosalind Pho— I was unaware of who she was when she first came to purchase a hat until she started tagging Hat of Cain on Instagram. Subsequently, I contacted her to return to Hat of Cain where I was able to gift her a hat.
Our customers also bring their parents when they are in town, to get them a nice elegant Panama hat. I learnt never to judge a book by its cover, some people walk in and you never expect them to buy something, but they walk out with 2 or 3 hats. I have had people who get one first, and 2 months later, they come back for more, saying that they loved it.
I think that everyone looks good in a hat. Everyone. We started a new series on Instagram, where we will go to various locations and take street shots of people wearing the Panama hat. Wearing it is all up to an individual, some like to slant it, some wear it at the back, while others bring it up front. We try to capture the fact that it is not just an old man who is wearing a hat, but the emphasis on individuality.
What is the future of Hat of Cain?