By Teresa Madeline
Wander down the canal and peer into one of the narrowboat windows, you may be lucky enough to find a room filled with mannequin heads, each adorned with their own hat. You have stumbled upon Chapeau Bateau, the world’s only modern & vintage floating hat shop (at least we think it is!).
Slightly quirky shop owner and boat captain, Will, is a warm welcome on a cold winters day. He proudly shows me around his cosy canal boat home-shop-office as we chat about the realities of living and running a business on the canal. Firstly I ask him the burning question, why hats? Will simply smiles in his cheeky-East-End-boy manner and shrugs, he wanted a shop on a canal boat and “I decided on hats. They’re non perishable, easy to store and I’d always liked hats”. And so Chapeau Bateau (French for ‘Hat Boat’) was born.
The set-up of the actual ‘shop display’ is, admittedly, on the slightly shabby side but it’s a work-in-progress as Will explains, and the quality hats on offer give it a much needed chic factor. Chapeau Bateau has a style of hat to suit all, whether it’s woolly head warmers, bus boy flat caps or elegant 50’s style wide brimmed hats. With materials like rabbit felt, this headwear gives a surprisingly high-end, luxurious touch to the rustic East end waterway.
Chapeau Bateau is a part-time venture for owner Will, open mainly just on weekends you may also find him and his stock making an appearance at the nearby Broadway Market or one of the pop-up ‘floating markets’.
Will describes the sense of community among the narrow-boating residents and businesses, “The people on the canal in London are actually friendlier than those in the country.”, making a change to the usual formula (Country = warm and welcoming, City = cold and detached). Other businesses nearby include a secondhand bookshop, The Slavic Kitchen and a Vegan sandwich boat, it’s a familiar scene to see neighbours or ex-neighbours floating by.
Running a shop on a canal boat, as novel as it may sound, is a completely different kettle of fish than a traditional shop. The challenges of living and working on a canal boat are varied as Will explains, firstly bringing business into the boat isn’t always a straight forward feat, especially in the winter season when most of the shop is indoors – many people are hesitant to crossover from land to water, unsure of the social codes that apply to entering a narrowboat. The canal doesn’t get as much regular passing foot traffic as a shop in the street does, plus the nature of being on a boat itself means it can be a challenge for returning customers if the entire shop decides to move itself one day to the next. When it comes to actually living on the boat Will describes it as being “like camping, but fancier”, he uses a generator for power, wood fire for warmth and collects his water in his 1000 litre tank from one of the water points along the canal.
Will talks passionately about his hats, most are handmade and imported from America through sources he gained while living in California for 15 years. He describes what he loves about hats, “It’s a unique kind of accessory, hats say quite a lot about you, sort of like the way shoes do…People tend to be very particular about the hats they wear, it’s very personal and they often take on a special role in a person’s style.” Looking at the quality of these hats one would expect a higher price tag but with prices ranging from £17-£35, the hats remain affordable enough to stay competitive with the other products on offer on the canal.
So whether you’re a fan of hats or not, coming on board to Chapeau Bateau is worthwhile for the experience alone, plus what cooler way to answer when someone asks where you got your hat from than “A floating Vintage Hat Shop!”.
You can find Chapea Bateau on Regents Canal by Broadway market just south of London Fields.