Q&A: The creators of the “world’s best tuque” on why their hat is worth $200 (or more)

Q&A: The creators of the “world’s best tuque” on why their hat is worth $200 (or more)

Photograph courtesy of Frontier

Last year, the designers at Toronto creative solutions firm Frontier set out to create the world’s best tuque. The project included gruelling research, a designated “Master Knitter,” a testing phase that employed Zamboni drivers and ice sculptors, and consultations with biomimicry experts. The finished product is made from rare muskox wool—just one of the reasons for the $200 price tag. What else makes a tuque worth so many bucks? We asked co-designer and Frontier founder Paddy Harrington.

I’m going to start by playing Devil’s Advocate and say that a winter hat, even a really good quality one, is not worth $200. What say you?
To be frank, when we got to the point of coming up with the price, we ourselves were a bit shocked. We worked with experts in fashion retail and they suggested we price the hat according to the standard retail model: you take your cost and double that to get the wholesale cost, and then double that to get the retail cost. Using that math, the price of our tuque would have been a lot higher.

So your tuque is quite a steal.
It is! And we didn’t even factor in the eighteen months we spent on research and development; just material costs and labour costs.

What was the original inspiration for this project?
Everyone at Frontier has worked internationally, which has meant having the opportunity to look at our country from an outsider’s perspective. One thing we realized is that there are all of these Canadian stereotypes that we, as Canadians, tend to shy away from. We decided to embrace that Canadian image and to apply design methodology to this standard thing that we all know: the tuque.

What made you think tuques as opposed to, say, parkas or plaid shirts? Did you notice a dearth in the market?
We weren’t looking at the business case or at the market opportunity. If anything, this was more like an art project for us. We want to prove that design as a methodology can improve something that a lot of people think doesn’t need to be improved.

Is there one specific reason that the hat is pricey?
There are a few reasons. One is that they’re locally made, individually, by a designated master knitter. Second, there’s an external layer and an internal layer, so it’s kind of like two tuques in one. Third, the inner layer is made from a blend that is 35 per cent qiviut, which is this muskox fiber that is pretty rare. It’s stronger than lamb’s wool, softer than cashmere, and the fibers are actually hollow, which means it stays warm when it’s wet.

You took some extreme measures in the testing period.
We got to the prototype stage in the middle of summer so we weren’t sure how to test it. What we did was give the tuque to people who work in cold environments. We gave one each to a Zamboni driver, an ice sculptor, and a butcher, and got their feedback. Also, the day we launched it and we got a little bit of coverage, two people who were on their way to Mount Everest reached out to us. They said they were going to be on a plane to Tibet at 3 p.m., and could we get them a couple of tuques. We said yes. Apparently they are on base camp right now and they have a National Geographic photographer there who is going to take some shots. We’ve told them we want to know how the tuque performs on Mount Everest.

 

I’m convinced that the tuque would serve a person well in the Arctic, but what about our middling Toronto winters?
I think we sort of recognize that the tuque is intended for sub-zero temperatures. It’s not necessarily something for every day. 

And you can pretty much forget about repeat customers. Is that a problem?
Well we’re lucky that our business model isn’t about the tuque being a huge retail success. Making the world’s best tuque was our only focus. Of course, it would be amazing if we became like the Tilley hat, which is an icon. We’d be thrilled.

Photograph courtesy of Frontier Photograph courtesy of Frontier
 

On the inside brim of the hat you have the Marshal McLuhan quote, “The criminal, like the artist, is a social explorer.” In relation to that hat, I’m not clear on what you’re saying.
That’s precisely why we chose that quote. We do brand-oriented work in Toronto, so Marshall McLuhan is a hero for us. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like “clear prose is a sign of no ideas.” This tuque challenges us the same way that quote challenges anyone who reads it.

I’m just trying to figure out if the creators of a $200 hat are the artists or the criminals.
It’s okay to have that question. Some people on Twitter think we’re one or the other. I think we’re both.