Deborah Hutton: It came out of my second quite significant skin cancer surgery which I had last year. When you go in to remove something, you never know how much skin they’re going to take. When I went into surgery, they said, “You were lucky you got it out now.”
A week later, when I got the stitches removed, I told the nurse I hadn’t had a peek, I didn’t know what was under the wadding, so I asked if she could take a photo before doing anything. When I looked at the shot, I thought, ‘“Fuck. Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here again.”
It was brutal. A lot of people think little skin cancers get burnt out and it’s just a little nick here and there. That night, I posted a photo of it [on social] and it went viral. I was on the couch and watching the news and next things, newsreader Peter Overton was talking about it – it went around like a fire. I was inundated with messages from people.
I got an email from a guy from a company called Rigon about how he has a particular material that makes hats and he wanted to talk about creating a range. I was really interested and naive, [I didn’t know] that most hats just provide you with shade – they aren’t giving you any protection from the sun. I had no idea.
We had discussions and I wanted to come up with a range that not only blocks UV rays like this material does, but is also stylish [with hats] that I’d wear for all different occasions. I never want to be without a hat now, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. Canopy Bay was born out of that.
It’s taken well over a year to birth this baby and the timing is now perfect as we go into spring and summer. It’s been an absolute labour of love.
This whole episode has really given me real purpose in a way that I couldn’t have reimagined. I would never have thought, from that one social media post, that it would have given me a real platform to bring awareness to one of Australia’s great health crises. Globally, [skin cancer] is known as Australia’s disease. If anything, it’s been such a gift for me. It’s really allowed me to use my profile for the greater good. It’s given me a real strong push for me to go in this direction.
IR: Tell me about the development process behind designing the hats.
DH: This is a particular fibre called flexi-braid and it’s a blend of different fibres. It’s a poly filament made from recycled materials and the braid is then sewn into a shape that goes into a metal hood. We bought all the hoods back from China so it was a big thing for us to be Australian made. They’re heated and pressed into a shape on these metal blocks. I’m working with a company called Rigon out of West Gosford in New South Wales.
It’s a family-owned company and co-partner Peter [Walcott] came up with this superior material and design. It’s Australian designed and it’s patented. He wanted to make a hat that was sustainable and great for the environment. A lot of the hats I’ve had in the past have gone mouldy, or they’ve cracked and split. This material doesn’t shrink, I’ve been in the water and gotten it completely wet. They’re washable. They’re non-flammable, they don’t fade. There’s airflow unlike some felt hats, they’re very lightweight.
Because of this material, they flat pack too. You can shove them in a handbag or in a suitcase. They’re incredibly durable and they’re UPF (ultra violet protection factor) 50+.
We’ve had a massive response online. We’ve built a beautiful website and I produced a catalogue – I brought all my team in, my main photographer and stylist and I chose the locations and did a beautiful shoot. We’ve got stockists and David Jones have picked it up, they’re our exclusive distributor with department stores, then there are multiple boutiques around the country, including Western Australia.
IR: The sun protection category has really ramped up recent years with new brands offering different products and formulations all the time…
DH: We all know that SPF 50+ is huge in Australia and the whole beauty industry – it’s become a huge sector and we’re building [SPF] into different products. But UPF 50+ is the next frontier. I honestly believe there’s an opportunity for retailers to explore that in terms of clothing and cover wear. If you wear a [regular] t-shirt, it will protect you to a certain extent, but there are now fabrications that are starting to have UPF qualities.
For me, this is an interesting area to move towards. I think more awareness needs to be brought about this. The hats are a big part of the message – it’s about stopping harmful UV rays and creating a barrier and the hats are a breakthrough, but more needs to be done in that area, where we can create something that’s functional and fashionable.
IR: No pun intended, but during your career, you’ve worn so many different kinds of hats. You began your career as a model on the cover of Cosmopolitan when you were 16, then you were an ambassador for Myer, a TV host and the editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly. You’ve also got a homewares range at Kmart and you’ve been a brand ambassador for The Skin Hospital and skincare brand, La Roche-Posay. What have been some of the valuable business lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
DH: I’ve been working with so many different companies over 40 years, but one thing I’ve learnt above everything is to partner really well. You have to find people who share the same values as you and have integrity in what they do – it has to marry with what you do and what you’re working on. I think a good relationship is the most important thing. In this instance, working with Rygon was a joy because I really respect and admire the family behind the company. They work hard, they’ve created an Australian company and they’re doing all sorts of magic things. They’re very aligned with me and my values in this area. It comes easy.
When things come together so beautifully and you’re there for the right reasons, then look at what’s propagated. It’s amazing. You have to go with your gut instinct. It doesn’t matter whether I’m an ambassador for someone or it’s a TV show I’ve worked on with some production companies.
In the past, there was a huge deal my agent came to me with – it was weight loss product – they were offering me a massive amount of money, but it didn’t feel right. I ended up saying no because I didn’t believe in the product. I think one of the biggest things you have to do in terms of protecting your brand is you have to go with your gut, regardless of what people put in front of you. It’s the no’s that have to help you protect your brand, rather than the yes’. It’s nature’s way of guiding you through it. It’s not always about the money.