Would You Pay $200 For the Perfect Winter Hat?
Pushing the boundaries of knitted caps with Toronto design firm Frontier
Long before it became a must-have fashion accessory to pull off a certain perfectly slouchy look, the knitted wool cap was a requirement for surviving the frigid winters of northern North America. In Canada, where there’s a distinctive local word for it – ”tuque,” in both English and French – comfy noggin-wrappers have been valued and cherished as a symbol of identity, or at least an essential part of the stereotype.
But do Canadians value their comfy hats enough spend $195 on a tuque purporting to be the best in the world? That’s what a small Toronto design firm wants to find out.
Squished into a little white-walled space in Little Portugal, Frontier is a content and design agency that specializes in branding; clients include the Toronto International Film Festival and Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn. The firm wanted to undertake a side project that would result in a product that was tangible, simple, of high quality, and distinctively Canadian.
They put it all together, and said: “OK, we’re going to make the world’s best tuque, that’s the brief,” recalls Paul Kawai, design director.
The challenge: Frontier isn’t a fashion studio. Making an accessory is a departure. “To be perfectly frank, we entered into it with a bit of naïeveté,” Kawai says.
Producing the ideal dome warmer involved a ton of research, including pleasant diversions into the history and etymology of tuques (see the resulting article in the debut issue of Frontier’s magazine, another side project). But of course the big questions revolved around materials, sourcing and production. Business director Michael Gormley appreciated how going through the experience of making a consumer product taught Frontier to communicate intelligently with clients who contend with that challenge every day – “clients who are in this industry, or an industry like it, and understand how a supply chain really works.”
Trial-and-error led to in a two-ply tuque solution. The unisex, one-size-fits-all cap consists of an outer layer of charcoal grey merino wool, while the inner layer – which is red, in something of a nod to the rebellious history of slouchy red caps – is a blend of cashmere, silk and qiviut.
Gathering qiviut is as challenging as spelling it. As the Frontierspeople are eager to explain, it’s the hair of a muskox (which is not actually an ox, but a relative of goats and sheep), harvested by combing the animals to collect the strands that have loosened through the natural shedding process. The materials are then worked into a tuque by Toronto area master knitter Jacqueline Schiller.
If that all sounds expensive, it is. Are people really going to pay a couple hundred dollars for an easy-to-lose seasonal hat? Kawai insists there’s a market. “We know that they’re out there, because we have them here in our studio,” he says. “In a way, [this project is] a bit of an experiment to find an audience for this.”
Perhaps a tuque-wearing Canadian celebrity will snap up a Frontier Tuque and make it a hot fashion item. Potential buyers might also include people who work in tough outdoor winter conditions – in natural resource sector, for example.
A more likely pool of buyers in a place like Toronto, however, would be followers of what’s been called the “slow goods” movement, who believe in paying extra for well-made items. Gormley and Kawai count themselves as believers.
Slow goods people are rebelling against a culture of disposability, and often talk about the durability of goods. Kawai says the tuque fits into this mindset. “It’s a sturdy object. With the right care it could last upwards of 20 years,” he says.
Says Gormley, referring to the Frontier Tuque’s price: “I’d argue that it [would be] tougher to convince me now to buy five different toques over the next 10 years, that [cost] $20, made who-knows-where – and I’m not confident that there was a fair wage given to every single community down the line.”
Whoever ends up buying the $195 tuque, the market could be quite limited – so the run is limited, too. The team had initally planned to produce just 100 Frontier Tuques – but at time of publication, the team was exploring an increase, thanks to healthy preorders. (UPDATE: The initial run will now be 200 tuques.)
The tuque will be available through three channels exclusively: Frontier’s website (or, if the purchase button isn't working, try an email with subject line "Frontier Tuque"); a launch and explanatory exhibit at a gallery pop-up on Nov. 4 to 6 at 12 Ossington Ave. in Toronto (across the street from slow-goods palace Shinola); and clothing shop Uncle Otis.
Meanwhile, for anyone who’s considering buying a tuque but has fears about how easy it is to lose one, Kawai has a reminder. Have you ever noticed how it’s easier to lose cheap sunglasses than expensive ones? Many people will know the feeling of having their subconscious take extra care not to lose track of an item that’s particularly valued. A pricey tuque is a tuque you hold onto.
“We want people to prize this object,” Kawai says. “As long as everyone’s not leaving it on streetcars, we’re good.”