Showing off her colourful Yorkshire flat caps with the help of her dancing friends, Rhian Kempadoo-Millar talks to Stephanie Smith. Pictures by Ant Robling.
Rarely seen without one of her own signature hats, Rhian Kempadoo-Millar, pictured below, has put the Yorkshire flat cap on the worldwide map.
Kempadoo Millar caps sold in 28 countries last year, including Malaysia, Burma, Dubai and Russia. Outside the UK, the US is the largest market, in particular among the cool urban dwellers of New York and LA. “They want something different,” Rhian says. “They love British-made. They like Peaky Blinders.”
Kempadoo Millar caps have a wide appeal. One day she gets a call from an 89-year-old man in Hull, the next day from a young hip-hop artist in Harlem, and both want exactly the same cap.
Made in Castleford by Lawrence and Foster using beautiful, premium fabrics, including tweeds by Abraham Moon of Guiseley, teamed with silks and African prints, the caps sell for around £60-£75. Bespoke caps are much in demand for weddings and sporting events, and the Yorkshire County Cricket and England rugby union teams have bespoke Kempadoo Millar hats. A recent wedding saw 10 groomsmen all wear the same bespoke flat cap, while Rhian also made a Yorkshire bride a white silk beaded flat cap with a veil. Prince Charles wore one last year, too.
In Apri, Rhian and her caps featured on the BBC2 historical reality series Back in Time for Tea and the phone didn’t stop ringing, with an instant threefold increase in demand. When Idris Elba wore a Kempadoo Millar cap to a premiere in 2015, he cemented the brand’s super-cool status, although the journey had only just begun.
“When Idris Elba wore the hat, everyone thought, oh you must be a millionaire. But I was thinking, we’re living on bread and water,” says Rhian.
Now living in Roundhay, Leeds, with her two teenage sons, she actually grew up in Newcastle before her family moved to Pontefract. Rhian trained in theatre costume design at Central St Martins, staying in London to work as a costume designer for computer games. When her eldest son, Ajuba, now 17, was born, she moved to Leeds, and younger brother Tiago arrived two years later. She continued working as a freelance costume designer, but then enrolled on a millinery course at Leeds College of Art in 2010, making women’s hats until her tutor pointed out that she always wore flat caps, which she did, because her Scottish Jamaican father, who died when she was 10, had left them to her. “He was a golfer,” Rhian says. “He had a pale blue one, a lemon yellow, a mint green – that Seventies thing where they used to wear the Pringle jumper and pastel colours.”
So she made some pinstripe flat caps with sections of African print fabric. “I wore them to New York and I was getting stopped in the street,” she says. “On the plane home, I got out a notebook and that was that. I made a few and people bought them, and I made a few more, then I found a manufacturers and then I thought I could probably turn this into a business.”
She began trading in 2013 but creating a global-selling brand from home has been tough, not least for her boys. Rhian says: “I’m a single mum. I sat them down and said ‘this could go one of two ways, bear with me, there’s not going to be any holidays to see grandma in Trinidad’, and they have been brilliant.”
Two years ago, help came when Rhian won a place within the new Creative Business Hub for Leeds, launched by Leeds Beckett University and Stanningley-based textile manufacturer AW Hainsworth & Sons, which has been making premium fabrics since 1783. Director Adam Hainsworth says: “It started with the desire to do utilise our resources and our history and our cloths and our space, for the greater good, really - quite altruistic, because we are manufacturers, wealth creators, part of the nine per cent of the GDP.
“With Rhian’s business, I could see naturally her using some of our cloth. I very much feel that these businesses starting from nothing, they can’t afford to feed themselves, let alone pay for this, pay for that.” Kempadoo Millar now has its own office and studio within Spring Valley Mills, alongside several other emerging independent creative and design businesses. Rhian says: “It’s working, too. Last year, sales were up 38 per cent.”
For Kempadoo Millar’s latest collection, Rhian staged a fashion shoot within the mill, with the caps modelled by friends from the dance world in the Leeds area. “I’ve been involved with RJC Dance for 15 years, making their costumes,” she says.
She has also collaborated with Jools St Armand, from Shipley, a self-taught 19-year-old tailor who created the waistcoats and trousers for the shoot. Inspired by Miles Davis, he has worn a suit since the age of six.
Called Express Yourself, the Kempadoo Millar campaign has been inspired by Sapeurs of the Congo. Rhian says: “It’s all these guys who live in the favelas, the slums of the Congo, but they dress like English dandies.”
Rhian has a wish list of famous folk she would like to see wearing a Kempadoo Millar hat, including Meghan Markle, Kate Middleton, the little royals and Leeds singer Corinne Bailey Rae.
She has said no so far to offers of investment because she wants to be able to keep to her ethics of buying and making locally. “It’s collaborative, like Native New Yorkshire,” she says. “It’s about taking something and putting a funky twist to it. Leeds is an amazing place.
“One thing I never ever do is get to Sunday night and think, oh, it’s Monday tomorrow. I love my job.”
Kempadoo Millar Headwear is available at www.kempadoo.com