I have a thing about hats. Civilization took a turn for the worse when headwear became optional, in my opnion, and I have developed quite a collection of caps, fedoras, fezzes and berets over the years.
Walking on a side street off Riga’s Dome Square today, I passed a shop I’ve passed thousands of times. It generally has some hats in the window but I’d never ventured inside before. But this was a particularly wet and dismal day so I thought I’d take a look and maybe add another item to my collection.
Peering through the rain-soaked window I saw the shop stocked some hats made by Swedish company Wigens. Wigens is the Bentley of cap-makers. Their products are rather expensive but extremely well made and beautifully designed.
But just as Bentleys are actually made by parent company Volkswagen and merely “assembled” in the UK, Wigens’ Swedish-as-Abba-buying-meatballs-in-Ikea products are actually made in Estonia.
Inside the shop the assistant homed in me as soon as I dared to actually touch up a cap. I would have thought the fact I was already wearing a cap would identify me as a cap wearer and therefore potential customer. But she seemed to interpret it as a sign that as I already had a cap, I couldn’t seriously be interested in buying another one.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” she asked, with an undertone that implied “Don’t touch unless you are definitely going to buy.”
“I see you stock Wigens hats – they are very good hats,” I said.
At this she brightened a little.
“Yes, they are all made in Sweden,” she chirped.
I couldn’t let that pass, though as subsequent events showed, I should have.
“Actually they are made in Estonia,” I said.
“Rubbish!” she retorted, with a look of absolute disgust. “Look, it says here: ‘Swedish design’. That’s the Swedish flag.”
“Yes, they are designed in Sweden. Wigens is a Swedish company. But they are actually made in Estonia. In Parnu,” I said.
“No they’re not!” she insisted. “Did you come in here to talk about where they are made or to buy something?” she asked, grabbing the Wigens hat out of my hands.
I think that’s the point at which she lost a sale.
“You’re the one who said they were made in Sweden – and that’s not true,” I said.
She sarcastically offered to sell me a furry, lime green pilot’s hat.
This teaches us several things. First, that if you are selling expensive items you should probably try to find out a few facts about them, including where and by whom they are made.
Second, that the phrase “The customer is always right” does not apply in Latvia – particularly if the customer really is right. It would have taken little effort on her part to humour me and then count the cash of a sucker who couldn’t tell the difference between Sweden and Estonia.
But what really struck me was the absolute disdain she had for the idea that a high quality product could be made in Estonia. Estonia may like to depict itself as a “Nordic” country (with justification) but it seems it’s simply not yet Nordic enough. A hat made in Estonia simply couldn’t be a high quality item like the ones they make in Sweden.
Are Bentleys rubish because they’re not really British? No. The fact they are basically German means they are well made. If you buy into the Bentley image then good luck to you even if you are basically buying an expensive Volkswagen Phaeton.
And to be fair to Wigens, while they like to emphasise their ‘Swedishness’ they do not hide the fact that their products are made in Estonia. Wigens even sells a cap named after the Estonian city of Tartu.
Earlier the same day I had looked at Wigens hats in the Stockmann department store, where they all bore a label clearly stating where they were made. Curiously, the hats in the smaller shop seemed to have the labels saying where they were designed but not the ones saying where they were made. Maybe that was what so troubled my friend – that someone had rumbled her.
Somehow I think that paints her as rather more cunning than she really was, but for Estonia to be convincing with its Nordic credentials it probably needs to persuade mad shop assistants as well as strange hat obsessives that it is just as ‘Nordic’ as Sweden.