Step into Hedley & Bennett’s headquarters in the industrial town of Vernon, in southeast Los Angeles, for the first time and you may mistake the place for a kid’s gym gearing up for a six-year-old’s birthday party. There’s a tree house, a sinuous slide, and awesome, free ice cream.
But walk farther inside and you’ll see a wildly successful chefs’ wear company in full swing. About 20 workers are bent over their sewing machines, stitching together denim aprons. Inspirational quotes from Julia Child and Walt Disney are painted on the sun-drenched walls. And on the other side of the building, aprons and chef coats in indigo, mustard, sky blue, and San Marzano red decorate an airy showroom, while adult- and child-size mannequins in matching crimson aprons stand on a pedestal bearing the inscription “LA Based & Female Founded.”
That female founder is Ellen Marie Bennett, the company’s 32-year-old CEO. She developed the idea for Hedley & Bennett in the spring of 2012. At the time, Bennett was working as a line cook and quickly losing enthusiasm for the profession she’d made her life’s goal.
Still in her mid-20s, she’d returned to her native Los Angeles from culinary school in Mexico and quickly found work in two of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants: chef Michael Cimarusti’s Providence and chef Josef Centeno’s Bäco Mercat. “But when I was there in the kitchen,” Bennett recalls, “just going at it, I thought to myself, ‘This is really crazy and difficult’—difficult in the sense of wrapping my head around doing this for the rest of my life.”
Working on the line, she was struck by the contrast between the boldness of chefs’ creations and personalities and the drab uniformity of their bleached-white attire. Envisioning something a bit more stylish, she began sketching designs, then walked away from what had promised to be a bright future.
She was a few weeks into her new venture when Centeno announced that he was going to buy new aprons for the Bäco Mercat kitchen crew. Bennett persuaded the chef to entrust her with the order, and they collaborated on a denim apron with red accents.
“When I made those first aprons, I felt a spark within me,” Bennett says. “It’s how I thought it was going to feel working in restaurants. But now I had this personal feeling that I was onto something here—something no one else was seeing.”
In naming her company, Bennett chose to honor her paternal grandfather, Hedley Bennett, who built rockets for Boeing and Lockheed Martin and relaxed on the weekends by reading the Encyclopædia Britannica. “He was on the English side of my family and was a proper, steady force in my life,” Bennett says. “I’m also half Mexican, and I spent a lot of my childhood running around and playing soccer in Mexico.”
Bennett had no training as a tailor or a clothing designer, so she asked local clothing merchants for help, cooking them elaborate meals in exchange for their advice. The aprons Bennett envisioned would offer chefs and home cooks a broad array of patterns, colors, and fabrics, but also technical improvements—a strap design that transferred more weight onto the waist and, to lengthen the aprons’ life spans, reinforced pockets and metal hardware.
The budding entrepreneur persuaded chefs to bench-test her early models in their kitchens; she hawked her wares at farmers markets. “I had so much enthusiasm, people didn’t know what to do with me,” she recalls. “They were just like, ‘Oh my God—why would I not buy a custom apron from this girl? It’s like she’s selling me the greatest thing on earth.’ ”
Today, scores of renowned chefs, including Emeril Lagasse, Ludo Lefebvre of Trois Mec, and James Beard Award–winning pastry chef Christina Tosi, wear Hedley & Bennett aprons and other cooking attire. The company has partnered with Vans to create Hedley & Bennett Vans aprons and nonskid sneakers. It’s also collaborating with Madewell on clothing items and aprons. The company currently has over 40 employees, and all aprons are cut and sewn in Los Angeles. Full-size, entry-level Hedley & Bennett aprons are priced at $78, with top models going for $120 and up.
When she launched her business, Bennett had few rivals in the high-end apron market. Now, many brands sell aprons in the $80-and-up price range. Part of Bennett’s product strategy is to avoid fashion trends, even if her aprons are, well, fashionable. “We’re designing for longevity—the long game, so we’re never trend-driven,” she says. “We aim to be evergreen.”
Ed Leibowitz wrote about the centuries-old craft of hand-braiding romal reins for Alta, Fall 2019.
• 3864 S. Santa Fe Ave., Vernon
• $49 to $280 for adult aprons
Three makers of aprons and other chefs’ wear whose creations may inspire home cooks to get serious
Rough Linen: Founded by Tricia Rose, whose early years in Scotland instilled a love of textiles and sewing. Aprons ($50) and pinafores ($85) are sewn in California out of linen woven from European flax.
Hand-Eye-Supply: These heavy-duty aprons for cooks—kitchen ($68–$80) and waist ($38)—are designed in Portland, Oregon, and made in the United States. The company also offers work aprons suitable for gardening, pottery, and home improvement.
Round House Jeans: Based in Shawnee, Oklahoma, this 116-year-old maker of work wear and bib overalls produces heavy-duty denim and duck canvas aprons ($40) for use in the kitchen, by the barbecue, or in the woodshop.