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The South African hat brand Simon and Mary is seen on the heads of many local and international celebs. Here is the story behind these local milliners.

For Dean Pozniak, creator of the unisex millinery brand Simon and Mary, it is always about the story. This Johannesburg-based designer is adamant that a brand must tell the narrative of the people who created it, those who consume it, and those who simply have an encounter with it.

“Our family’s hat-making story started in the 1930s, when my grandparents left Poland for South Africa and started making caps in the City of Gold. My grandfather, Simon, called my grandmother – whose real name was Leah-Mary – after a character in one of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s novels.”

A Heritage Brand

Having worked as a box packer, machine minder and other roles from a young age, Dean had his “aha moment” when he realised that his family-run business should be marketed and sold as a heritage brand. This was in 2014, when the brand Simon and Mary was born.

“We tap into all parts of South African society to come up with our designs. For example, our Fez-style range pays homage to the Ndebele culture. The colours – popping yellows, pinks, greens, blues, and black were all inspired by Ndebele beadwork,” says Dean.

Simon and Mary designs

“Somehow the shape of the Ndebele bracelets reminded me of the fez silhouette. It felt like a natural fit and new translation of the culture, a new way of telling the Ndebele tribe’s story.”

Dean’s factory in Denver, south of Johannesburg, employs more than 70 people.

Commercial Success 

Real commercial success for the Simon and Mary brand started happening in 2016, when Dean collaborated with creative director, stylist and photographer Trevor Stuurman. The pair then ensured that the hats were relevant in a South Africa that demands originality, and African excellence that can be presented to the world.

“A-listers such as Maps Maponyane, The Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, and Black Thought from the hip-hop band The Roots are some of the celebrities helping to elevate the brand Simon and Mary. Our hats have been featured in music videos, thanks to Ntsika from the a cappella group The Soil, and a musical outfit headlined by rapper Riky Rick from BoyznBucks.

Simon and Mary style

“But what is even more essential for us, is the people on the street who buy our hats. Research has shown that about a third of the South African population wears hats, and we manufacture stylish hats for them. They inspire us to come up with offerings such as our latest range: the Western collection. These are hats with tall crowns in typical cowboy aesthetic, but with a South African twist,” he says.

Meshing Old and New

Perhaps Dean’s pièce de résistance is how he manages to stitch together the past with the present, ensuring the brand has a bright and successful future – not only in South Africa, but globally as well.

For instance, at the factory they still use steamers, presses, dyeing machines and wooden hat blocks that have been around for over 50 years. Dean recently had to call two technicians out of retirement to fix a machine.

He also consults some of the older factory workers on new styles to ensure that there is a golden thread between the past and the present. One of them is Alfred Manyoni, who has worked in the factory for 60 years and is on his way to retirement.

When the likes of Alfred give the nod to a design, Dean consults younger workers, after which he tinkers with the ideas to ensure a fresh look, using shorter brims, different ribbons, non-traditional colours and different shapes.

A Dynamic Era 

“We live in such a dynamic era where anything and everything is possible. What we are attempting, is to turn what is considered an old-fashioned accessory into a modern-day must-have. Before we launched Simon and Mary, we did not manufacture hats for women, but we have found that there are actually slightly more women who buy our hats than men.

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“We are also seeing people wearing hats in different ways. Traditionally, hats were worn upright, but several of our clients wear them at the back of their heads, or in other, more interesting ways. While keeping our traditions and heritage, we look at contemporary ways of plying our trade, including using materials such as hemp for some of our brims.”

As Dean translated into his designs what it means to be an African, while tapping into an abundant source of heritage, the Simon and Mary story has become one that a global audience is buying into.

Words by Sibusiso Mkwanazi

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