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Brim City

Both emerging and steadfast designers create dandy new hats

   Except for a thankfully brief invasion of urban cowboys in the early 1980s, men rarely have worn hats during the last half-century. Hats are back again, but this time the influences are more diverse than one John Travolta movie. A gent’s range of sartorial expression is greatly expanded, from retro to hip and from casual to elegant.
   “The fashion headwear business has always been fueled by the entertainment world, but the current statement hats have come from the music community,” says Pamela Fields, chief executive officer for Stetson in New York City. “There are also celebrity influences such as Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. And high fashion designers are using hats to make statements and complete their looks.”
   Another big difference: the fashion of a hat is as important, if not more so, as its function. Our forefathers wore felt fedoras to protect them from wind and rain. And a pert summer straw provides protection
from UV rays. But Gramps didn’t concern himself with which crown height best complemented his jawline. He owned one hat, maybe two, and he most likely didn’t have 20 limited-edition felt colors to choose from each year, including milk chocolate and willow, such as those offered by Chicago-based Optimo Hats.
   Graham Thompson launched Optimo Hats 15 years ago after first apprenticing and then buying out a retiring hatter. Among the offerings are ready-made and custom felt hats, as well as Montecristi and Milan straw hats. Top-sellers are variations of the fedora, homburg, derby and porkpie. Prices start at $550 for felts. Straws start at $395 and can go up to $20,000 for a tight, super-fine weave.
   “For a while, price became more important than quality—hats were almost disposable,” says Thompson. “Now the customer is returning to the luxury market, and he wants a beautiful, well-made hat that expresses his personality.”
   Personal clothier Jeff Landis of Montopoli Custom Clothiers in Chicago shares his observations. “The smaller brim, which is very popular right now, has been combined with a lower crown for a much sportier or hipper look,” he says. “For the higher levels of dress, hats— are becoming more popular as an accessory to an outfit—not only the traditional fedora, but the straw bowler as well.”
   Stetson, which was founded in 1865, is one of the country’s iconic brand names, especially when it comes to western hats. Lesser known are the label’s casual and dress felts and straws, and punk and street collections. Prices range from $50 for a fun straw that will take a beating to $5,000 for a fur felt number that is wrapped in a hand-tooled leather band with diamond-studded buckle.
   Narrow brims, also called stingy brims, are popular with the emerging generation, says Stetson’s Fields. Another trend is the distressed movement, which emulates the shredded jeans and frayed edges seen at runway fashion shows.
 “Some of these hats look like they’ve got stories to tell,” Fields says.

Published: June 07, 2010
Issue: Summer 2010 Urban Living