Ask Alex Tilley how he started Tilley Endurables and you won’t hear the usual worked-his-fingers-to-the-bone inspirational stuff. According to the modest Mr. Tilley, it all began when he was renting and selling artwork to businesses in Toronto.
"I'm kind of a lazy fellow, so I only worked in the mornings, four days a week. That left me free to sail in the afternoons,” he laughs.
He sailed a hand-built, classic 31-foot sloop, and wanted a hat of equal quality. Not finding what he wanted, Alex decided to create one. A designer came up with the original look and Alex sourced the fabric.
“Genco Sails” he says, “suggested 10-ounce cotton duck and I found some British brass fittings. Because cotton shrinks, we boiled the heck out of it before the cutting process. Now, our hats won’t shrink but I do suggest re-stretching them over a knee after washing. The hat went through many versions before I tested it on a family sailing holiday in Belize. Right away, I discovered it flew off in high winds, so I created an adjustable cord."
The hat was a huge success – so the next year, Alex created shorts of the same quality. The shorts were – and are – expensive to make. Tilley, for perhaps patriotic reasons, has items made in Canada. Labor costs are high, but he can make small runs and “keep a watchful eye.”
At first, not many sold but after Alex provided shorts and hats to the Canadian team for the 1983 America’s Cup Race, Tilley’s popularity grew. Soon Alex was approached by a man wanting quality travel trousers. Alex took his cheque and got started, accepting even more cheques along the way from people he met at sailing shows.
“It took me so long to get those trousers right,” Alex laughs, “that the cheques became stale-dated and I had to get new ones!”
The trousers were the tipping point and Alex’s hobby became a company: Tilley Endurables (changed from ‘Alex Tilley and Family’s Nautical Gear'). The first store, a mail-order house, opened in 1984.
“I soon realized Canadians didn’t want to shop by mail order,” says Alex, “so we opened our retail store on Don Mills Road.”
Today, there are three Tilley Endurables stores in Toronto, one in Victoria, and two in Montreal. The hats are sold in about 3,000 other stores in 18 countries. Pretty impressive for ‘a lazy kind of fellow.’
Alex argues against the evidence. “I really don’t enjoy working very hard,” he insists, “so I surround myself with people smarter than I am.”
Maybe…but rest assured Alex takes a keen interest in every piece of his company’s gear.
“Number one,” he says, “it must look great. If people don’t look good, they won’t wear it. Secondly – there has to be quality in the materials and the workmanship. Back in the 80s I learned our hats and shorts were actually the best in the world. Creating that quality hadn’t been all that hard, so it became my goal to make everything else the very best too. Mostly, I think it is. I take it as a slight against my honor if a button comes off – so they’re sewn on twice – once to attach them and again for reinforcement.”
Alex demands gear that’s as useful as it is attractive.
“Many people want to travel with just hand luggage,” he says, noting that, “…with Tilley clothing, you could really travel the world with just two pairs of underwear and socks, if you washed one set every night. I cheat and bring three, but that’s our secret."
Alex believes authentic travel involves getting to know people. To break the ice, he traveled Guatemala and Bhutan, two of his favorite spots, with a large rubber nose. When people laughed and relaxed, Alex pulled out his Polaroid camera.
“Then,” he explains, “I’d say ‘I have a gift for you’ and give them their photo. One of my favorite shots shows two bushmen hugging each other with joy, looking at perhaps their first-ever picture!”
Alex’s most memorable travel moments were spent with Sir Edmund Hillary.
“He was my hero not because he climbed Everest, but because the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation helped the Sherpa people of Nepal. I hiked there with him and saw what he’d accomplished and how he was so honored by the local villages.”
Says Alex, “Once, as a young hiker approached, I called out and asked if he’d recognized Sir Edmund who he’d just passed. The hiker wheeled around and sped back to Sir Edmund, seizing his chance to meet this great man. Later, he returned, looked at me and said simply: ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ That’s one of my fondest memories of the trip.”
That’s typical of Alex’s mustn’t-miss-the-moment attitude toward life. He’s created the best gear, bridged languages gaps and built friendships using photographs – all by paying attention to what matters to him. Rather than celebrating his own success, he points to the smart people he’s surrounded himself with. If Alex Tilley could find a way to bottle his positive outlook on life, it might even outsell his hats!
First published in Cruise and Travel Lifestyles Magazine, Fall 2013 issue