Get To Know: Kate Hulett (A Local Success Story)

Interviewed by: Tahlia Sanders

Kate Hulett and Matthew Bale have one of those quintessential Perth success stories that local housewives discuss in coffee shops, with a pride suggesting that they personally helped spawn the pair’s success. I recently caught up with one half of the dynamic duo, Kate, to learn a little more about their journey to this point and left feeling both touched and inspired.

Their story began whilst living in London, in a converted vicarage flat called St Saviours. Kate and Matt had been working conventional jobs until a routine trip to visit Kate’s family in Perth triggered an idea for something bigger. After noticing a gap in the market for unique, affordable millinery fashion, they took up crafting one-of-a-kind hats in the spare room of St Saviours. From there, their eponymous label was born.

“Like everyone, for ages we’d been talking through a hundred business ideas but this hat-related one seemed to stick,” Kate recalls.

St Saviours grew from a humble stall at London markets and festivals, to eventually being noticed by representatives of international brands. An accessories buyer for Topshop approached Kate and Matt, after having watched their progress for a while, inviting them to hold a concession stall at Topshop on Oxford Circus. The pair gave up their day jobs to focus on the overwhelming demand for their brand and they were soon met with even more interest. In a happy twist of fate, Kate and Matt met a guy at a music festival who turned out to be the flatmate of the buyer for Anthropologie.

In Kate’s own words; “long story short, we ended up selling in Anthropologie on Regent street also. And then Harvey Nichols got in touch.”

Through St Saviours, Kate and Matt were able to relaunch Harvey Nichols’ entire Knightsbridge store hat department. St Saviours grew to garner global attention, even attracting the attention of celebrities like Kylie Minogue (a career highlight for Kate).

In 2013, Kate and Matt decided to pack up shop and relocate the heart of their business to Perth.

They were hesitant to commit themselves to a direction that wouldn’t align with their long-term brand. “We brought our hats with us, but we weren’t exactly sure what we’d do.”

Luckily, the MANY project in Fremantle offered St Saviours a space to explore their identity in a relatively risk free environment.

When I caught up with Kate, she spoke with nothing but positivity about MANY and its founder, Spacemarket’s ambition to pair “disused spaces with useful people”. MANY is “bigger picture stuff”, Kate told me. It’s a space where people can enjoy quality lifestyle and culture, a step away from the conventional retail space that is designed to extract money from the floor-space, and a step towards Perth becoming part of a global movement. Kate has identified through her travels a merging of taste, lifestyle and culture in public spaces. Most coffee shops nowadays also stock commercial wares. Many retailers also stock magazines. With a growing tendency towards people working from home, Kate says, the same people are venturing into cafes and actively seeking cultural opportunities to experience tangible feeling and connection again.

In planning their Perth store space, Kate and Matt were inspired by the ethos behind MANY, and expanded their brand to include a whole range of lifestyle goods rather than just hats. Their new label, Kate + Abel, now encompasses a coffee shop and a myriad of other lifestyle products you didn’t even know you needed until now.

Kate is a huge advocate of the proliferation and diffusion of culture. During our chat, she referenced a quote by John Butler, which states that you want to live in a thriving, entertaining, cultured place then it is up to you personally to support it.

When I asked Kate if she had any tips for young, local entrepreneurs looking to Kate + Abel for inspiration, she emphasised to me that Perth is saturated with opportunity. It is the perfect place to plant the seed for a new business and gauge its growth. Perth locals are “very supportive of new things and generally, you can make things happen.” Kate and Matt additionally work as project managers for MANY, meaning they meet an abundance of local start-up founders. Kate says the most common deficiency they’ve seen in those looking to launch their brand with MANY, is a lack of research.

“Don’t rely on the feedback of your friends and family only – they will love what you’re doing but this doesn’t mean that shoppers will too,” Kate advises.

She suggests exposing yourself to ideas and corporate education as much as you can, through following other local businesses on social media, attending small business courses and absorbing insights from all sources.  An integral part of research, according to Kate, is testing your idea through as many local markets as you can.

“Unforunately, no matter how much you love your idea – not every one will fly.”

Thankfully for Kate and Matt, the idea behind St Saviours hats is as broadly loved by the public as it was by the founders – offering a product that’s totally custom-made by hand in these days of mass-manufacturing and fashion commercialisation certainly was a risky decision by the pair. Kate joked that more businesses don’t operate in the same way because you can’t make any money from it.

“No one can talk as knowledgeably and passionately about the hats or our business as Matt and I. The beauty of this is also its downfall in a commercial sense,” she explained.

Kate argues that their personalised service is what sets them apart in the cluttered retail sector, though. This, too, is what Kate and Matt love most about their job – the rewarding nature of meeting people from all walks of life and getting to know them while they sit at the “hat bar.”

Their hats, she says, act as an “acceptable form of adult dress up”. Their products allow customers to experiment with new looks and sartorial identities. Kate and Matt’s involvement in this process enhances the sense of customer-retailer connection.

However, with the continued success and growth of Kate + Abel has come private struggles for the pair. Kate opened up to me about Matt’s continuing battle with mental health issues.

She confided, “I [previously] would have been ashamed and embarrassed to talk about Matt and what we are both going through, but fortunately Matt is incredibly open about it.”

She has observed how Matt sharing his story with both friends and strangers is disarming, and powerful in its raw honesty.

“Suddenly, upon hearing his story, other people can now open up and talk about their problems too. Matt has ended up informally counseling many people that he’s met through our shop – simply from being honest with them about his issues.”

Matt, Kate said, is one of many normal, contributing business people who are struggling in their private lives. It’s certainly not only “crazies” and “junkies” who deal with these issues.

“By talking about it, it makes it okay and gives the illnesses a face and a personality. Matt is larger than life and full of energy, so when people hear that he’s unable to get out of bed, hates himself enough to hurt himself and can’t bare seeing anyone for days on end – it’s really hard for them to link the two characters.”

Kate’s frank and honest discussion of such a stigmatised topic left me feeling optimistic and inspired by the strength of the young couple. Kate and Matt, the two powerhouses figure-heading Kate + Abel, have earned their place as a Perth coffee shop legend.  They have played an integral role in propagating the revitalisation of Fremantle (and broader Perth) culture over the last couple of years. They’ve conquered international success.  And finally, they are fighting a courageous battle for a healthier societal outlook towards mental illness.

To meet them yourself pop down to the store between 10am and 5pm, Thursday to Sunday.