Alex Knorr and Loz (Lauren) Williams are the founders of Will & Bear, an Australian handmade hat company that was inspired by the road and is designed to inspire others to adventure often.
The Hat That Travels
Both at a similar crossroads in their lives, Loz (Will) and Alex (Bear) met at the perfect time. They both loved to travel and it soon became the foundation of their relationship. They decided to pack their lives into a 1982 Kombi Transporter van to travel the coast of Australia.
“It’s a lot of work at times, but a very interesting way to live and lot’s of fun,” said Alex. “It is testing as well, but the majority of it is great. You find yourself in crazy spots and meeting some amazing people.”
On a summer trip to Tasmania, the southern most state of Australia, Alex was on the hunt for a new hat to shield him from the scorching sun. However, he surprisingly found few options, especially for men. He wanted to find a hat that he felt a connection to and one that would inspire him on his journey. Eventually, they found a hat at a second-hand store that had all the beautiful marks and notches of its past adventures. The hat began to embody the essence of their journey.
“Loz would always fight me for it” Alex said jokingly. “We just wanted to wear it when we were traveling, especially in the van. There’s a beautiful story behind these objects. It’s the hat that travels and gets out there.” Realizing there was something special behind this idea was the catalyst for Will & Bear.
No Rule Book
Since they were in relatively uncharted territory, Loz and Alex set up an Instagram account called “Babes in hats” (@babesinhats) to test the brand concept. Alex admits that the name is somewhat ridiculous. However, the account became a hit and accumulated thousands of followers.
“It helped us build a community before we even started. I think that’s really important,” he said. “Our community is amazing; they share our story, we share their story. It’s grassroots and that’s the best thing about it. It feels so organic and just feels right when you’re doing it.”
Loz started her career in a more conventional finance job, but Alex had been a freelance designer for years. He started in product design and moved into branding, graphic design, and even dabbled in interior design. “It got weird, but I got a lot of exposure to some interesting projects and that helped when starting our own thing,” said Alex.
Alex’s freelance business was going well so they tried to put as much as they could into savings for Will & Bear while living off of Loz’s income. – primarily for the initial product run.
“What we found is that there’s no right way of doing any of this. There is no rule book. Looking back now you could probably simplify what we did as well. We had thousands of hats for our first run, but we were only selling about ten hats a month. There were some tough times where we said ‘shit this might not work’ and wondered if we just had a warehouse full of hats,” he laughs.
But soon, orders began to snowball. Will & Bear’s hats are now in about 100 boutique retailers and one large Australian online retailer called The Iconic.
It’s a Bit Theatrical
Leveraging Alex’s experience in design and Loz’s background in finance, they dug deep into learning the hat-making process. “It’s a really interesting process and actually quite complicated,” Alex said with an excitement in his voice. As a designer, he grew to love using wool in products. Not only does he love the tactile nature of it, but it’s a renewable source that is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. So they decided to use 100% Australian wool to make their hats.
The process is still predominantly done by hand. The raw wool, delivered straight from the shearing shed, is milled to remove any impurities and refined down to the best strands. Those strands are compacted into cone shapes, pressed, dyed, and formed. The molding machine presses it with heat and then steams it to put moisture back into the fibers. Finally, the sweat-band and leather features are sewn onto the hat. “It’s a bit theatrical in the factory with the heaps of steam and all the hand processes,” Alex said.
To ensure ethical sourcing, their hats are made in a certified fair-trade approved factory in Mongolia. Also, they have partnered with trees.org to plant 10 trees for every hat sold.
“We want to promote a more responsible and thoughtful way of doing business. Also, we celebrate the slow-fashion aspect of hats; we want them to last,” said Alex. “We’re not perfect, but as we grow we are getting better and better. Not only by finding the best factories and the right materials, but also moving towards recycled packaging. You have to make baby steps and as much as we’d like to do it all at once, there’s an economic side of this too because our business has to be sustainable. It’s something we believe in and I think being authentic is important.”
Setting The Foundation
You can’t help but feel a connection to the timeless, outdoor aesthetic that is the driving force behind Will & Bear. Their lifestyle branding will make you feel a sense of nostalgia for places you have never been. “I’ve found that it is so important to set the foundation,” said Alex. “Leading by example, especially in this field, is so important. It sets the standards for the company so people get an idea of what you’re about. It also helps draw in other talented people.” They now have a creative community of photographers and ambassadors to help tell Will & Bear’s story.
Alex acknowledges that there has been a huge learning curve for him and Loz. They structured the business in a way that allows them to travel and continue to do the front-end marketing that inspired them to start the company in the first place. Their success so far hasn’t come easily, but Alex believes that being uncomfortable is a necessary evil when pursuing your goals.
“It’s the way that you put aside the scary decisions and trust your gut,” said Alex. “You have to have a bit of blind optimism that it will all work out in the end. People are stuck in their day-to-day. Worrying about making their mortgage payments and the tasks in-front of them instead of looking at the big picture. I think the biggest lesson that living and working in a van has taught us is that if it all goes to shit, we still have the one thing that could save us. We would still be so happy to just live in the van and get by. Living simply has taught us that there really is nothing to lose.”
To find out more about Will & Bear (and buy a hat!), visit their website at willandbear.com or follow them on Instagram @willandbear. I hope you found inspiration in this story and if you did, please share. Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know what you think