Royal Ascot: Big business for hat designers

For five days in June, 300,000 racegoers descend upon the small town of Ascot, to take a punt on the horses. The sport however is not what grabs attention but what's worn on attendees' heads.

As its name implies, Royal Ascot is a very high-class event. So it's of the utmost importance to dress correctly. And it should come as no surprise that £33 million ($51 million) was spent on fashion and beauty treatments alone, for Ascot Racecourse events, in 2013, according to Deloitte.

Racegoers at 'Royal Ascot', at Ascot Racecourse, UK
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Racegoers at 'Royal Ascot', at Ascot Racecourse, UK

At most prestigious areas of Ascot racecourse, certain attire is mandatory. The most lavish: 'Royal Enclosure' will refuse entry to adults not wearing hats, or those wearing fascinators or headpieces less than 4 inches in diameter.

Therefore, Royal Ascot can be one of most crucial times to boost business for British hat designers.

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This hat's for keeps

Clients who want unique, more intricate, tailored hats may opt to buy; however this can be one hefty investment.

For hat designer, Tracy Rose, Royal Ascot is a focal point of the millinery calendar. The British "Summer Season" — that starts with The Chelsea Flower Show and ends with Cowes yacht-racing week on the Isle of Wight — makes up 70 percent of annual sales at Tracy Rose Hats and Ascot accounts for more than half of the summer sales.

Tracy Rose fashioning her hat designs, at Royal Ascot
Simon James/Gareth Cattermole | Getty Images
Tracy Rose fashioning her hat designs, at Royal Ascot

Couture hats start selling at £750, but those who covet a more elaborate sculpture spend as much as £4,000 ($6,200). People start booking appointments as early as January when Royal Ascot's ticket office opens.

"The client first shows me their outfit, but I also look at face-shape, colour, complexion, and personality. Next, I'll design a hat that complements all these aspects, but also come up with other design options to wow the client," Tracy Rose told CNBC, who added that after measurements and fabrics are discussed, there'll be at least one fitting, with the overall process taking between 3-6 weeks.

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Currently, luxury department store Harrods is selling high-end hats from designers such as Phillip Treacy and Rachel Trevor-Morgan, for prices ranging from to £599 to £1,050.

Sellers even work from abroad, with MAGGIE MAE DESIGNS® in Cape Cod, MA, selling created-to-order couture hats online from $498 to "well over $1,200" according to Sally Faith Steinmann, the owner and designer.

Equine sporting events account for 50 percent of the company's total hat production, with spring being the busiest for designing.

"I love creating hats for Royal Ascot because of the rich heritage and history of hats and horse racing associated with this more than 300 year-old racing tradition," Steinmann told CNBC.

Rent, rent, rent

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Renting can be preferable for its convenience and affordability; yet it's the perfect time for designers to truly shine.

Out of 1,000 hats and fascinators at Louise Claire Millinery, around 400 to 500 are hired out just for Ascot each year. Fascinators can be hired for as little as £15 for seven days or between £35 and £140 for hats.

Having the "personal" touch is vital for Louise Claire Millinery, with transactions only being dealt with in-store to ensure each design is perfect, inevitably helped by the champagne offering to small parties, according to Craig Walton, a director at the company.

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Designer Lizzie Hughes from Lizzie's Hats, stopped online bookings one month ahead of Ascot, telling CNBC this was because of the busy season and "prefers to meet clients before the day." Prices for hire range from £30 to £90.

Hectic Hat Hire offers one-day hires for Ascot with average cost at £85. Rosie Abrahams from the company told CNBC that despite increasing shopping hours during this time, the "shop is (still) crazy" with customers coming from as far as U.S. and Australia.

Top dollar for the top hat

Queen Elizabeth ll; Prince Philip; Prince Harry & Prince Andrew; at Royal Ascot
Anwar Hussein | WireImage | Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth ll; Prince Philip; Prince Harry & Prince Andrew; at Royal Ascot

For men, it's all about tradition with the top hat. High street brands like Moss Bros. hire out hats for as little as £20 — when added to certain suit packages — but when selling, hats alone cost £239.

Douglas Simpson, director at Ascot Top Hats Ltd, told CNBC that men are more likely to buy than rent.

"As the saying goes 'a square peg in a round hole' but in hatting terms an off the shelf hat come in a 'regular' oval, but heads are 'irregular' shapes which is why top hats do not fit well," said Simpson.

At Ascot Top Hats, they start measuring a head's shape and hat size - using a specialist hatter's device called "Conformateur" - and from there they reshape the hat's structure, depending on material.

About half of the trade happens around June. Felt top hats start from £100, yet vintage silk top hats can go to "many thousands of pounds, based on hat size, style, height and condition," Simpson told CNBC.

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A 'Conformateur': A specialist hatter's measuring device
Credit: Ascot Top Hats Ltd
A 'Conformateur': A specialist hatter's measuring device