Opened in 1911, J.J. Hat Center was one of about 48 other hat stores in NY and thanks to a name change here and new ownership there it is the only one to survive. That sort of history brings clout to an institution. The narrative of it, however, is far more human as I learned sitting down with Aida O'Toole, owner of J.J. Hat Center for the past 16 years. “It's kind of a kooky business,” she laughs as I ask her about how long J.J.'s has been a part of her family, “J.J. hat center has been in many families. Usually it's the third generation of the family that sells off. You usually have the father that gives it to the son and the son says, that's enough. There's never a third generation.” Right now, we're on generation two for the O'Toole's, with Aida's son Sean having started satellite hat store Pork Pie Hatters, already (happily) throwing a wrench in that myth.
Currently housed in what was previously the original IBM offices, this landmark shop knows a thing or two about building off of myths. “Most of those hat stores would take the name of their major brand. So there was Adams, Knox, Stetson. And they would be all through the city. This hat store I believe was Adams when it first started, it did not become J.J. Hat Center until the very late 70s or early 80s. And I believe they named it J.J. because [the previous owner's] name was John and his son's name was Jack. Everybody wants to know who J.J. is.” The name stuck, much like the name of Borsalino, which was growing in popularity alongside them, “when we started to do more Borsalino [hats] we started to see more and more people were interested in their product and people actually started calling us the Borsalino store. So in that sense I thought, if this is what people are calling us, then maybe that's exactly what we should be. The biggest sign out there is Borsalino because we are the largest Borsalino retailer in NY.” But don't assume this means the name J.J. is any less important, “Now if you notice under the sign in the brass letters it's J.J. Hats. The other sign can be removed, but the brass letters will always stay there.” she laughs again. And this theme of things that change (or threaten to change) sitting next to those that never do is a recurring one in our conversation.
As Aida and I continued we started discussing less about the old and more about the new. “The trends right now are really opening up. You see by the little tiny stores that are opening around. I think there is a whole renewed interest in Menswear, specifically.” This boom in menswear has been a hot topic of conversation everywhere in the fashion industry, and accessories are no different. “I think men are now going back to the traditional sort of way to dress. They're fascinated with accessories they're fascinated with ties and socks. I mean you see men wearing their pants shorter just so they can show off their socks. That's huge, because those accessories then will translate to all accessories and with hats being worn by young men, it gives [hats] a different identity. It makes them cooler, and hip. It makes hats young.” Perceptions of menswear have definitely changed, and Aida notes that though it calls on the traditional, it is still something very different, “Younger men are much better at blending things into their wardrobes. They don't want to look like the cookie cutter, which was really the [tendency of the] 50s. They want to look like themselves. So in doing that, I give young men a lot of credit, they're much braver then their predecessors were.” Menswear, and specifically haberdashery, has become less about a uniform and more about expression.
But for a store whose doors have remained open while every other hat shop in the city has shuttered, staying relevant isn't just about catching on to a style trend. It's about ensuring quality. “What we're finding is young men are very very fascinated and consumed with quality. And quality is so key especially when you come into a place like J.J.'s... We're not selling you the stuff that you see on the street. These are all hats that are made in Europe. Italy for the Borsalinos, but also South America, Canada, and let's not forget the USA, we do sell hats made in America. And in all of that, [the customer] wants to know where the quality is, they want to know where it comes from. I don't think, if I look back 10-15 years, that anyone asked where the hat came from. And now, one of the first things they'll ask is 'Well where was it made. Where was this hat made.' They want to know because they want to feel like they are buying a quality product... Young men are smart. Much smarter. They're willing to spend the dollars, but they want to know what the quality issues are.” her newer clients also come in having already done their homework, “They knew all about the brand, they knew all about the fit of the hat, they knew everything... We get very few men that come in and say I want one hat that's an all purpose hat that I can wear with anything. They really know [what they're looking for] and they've worked their wardrobe and [...] they want it to look nice.”
“Young men will be dictating what the hat business will be in the next 10 or 20 years,” Aida predicts. Given her and J.J. Hat Center's history, I started to get the feeling that building a legacy is more then just adapting and surviving, it's about looking forward and being excited about the industry's future. About finding the balance between what you're good at and matching how the consumer changes like an old friend. And with J.J.'s newer clientele obsessed with quality, variety, style and service the future sounds very welcome.
Pork Pie Hatters and JJ Hat Center are pleased to announce the newest addition to the family - Director of Millinery, Ryan Wilde! An established hat maker most known for handmade women's pieces, her custom headwear has appeared on celebrities like Janet Jackson, Rosario Dawson, Alec Baldwin and internationally in publications like Vogue magazine. No surprise for someone who counts Isabella Blow, the woman that launched legends like Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, as mentor and instigator towards pursuing millinery. Her first several collections were picked up by NY fashion icons Henri Bendels and Patricia Fields; an interesting juxtaposition of clientele. Between the ritzy Fifth Ave socialites of Bendels and the over the top club kid roots of Fields, Ryan found her following; and you'd be hard pressed to find a better example of what makes her pieces stand out. Her hats have a glamour that speaks to everyone.
I remember walking by Ryan Wilde's store in Williamsburg and doing an immediate double-take. Her pieces had the right touches of whimsy, and elegance. “I always want everything to be a little surreal when it comes to women's fashion,” she says as I sit with her at the brooklyn Pork Pie Hatters store, her new permanent location. And she succeeds, with pieces like her infamous bunny ear hat she turns the surreal into something very approachable and attractive. “I think the way a hat looks on a woman's head is the most important thing. You have to teach her how to wear it. You can make a bunny hat that looks completely stupid on everyone or you can make a bunny hat that actually looks kind of amazing. And you know, that's what I've always really focused on is making sure that my funny and avant-garde stuff is still flattering because in the end that's all a woman really wants. Something that makes her look pretty and interesting and cool and not just silly.”
It's this ability to straddle that line of tasteful and over the top that helps her bring out the best in her clients, “A lot of the times women will walk into my store and they'll be like 'oh my god, these hats are so ridiculous' and, 'I would never wear them'. And I put them on them and then they walk out with one. Because they don't imagine that they could ever look ok in that.” Bringing fantasy to life is all about making it relatable. “It's not like I'm making tie dye hats. Usually they're very simple colors and easy to wear.”
So what does this new voice mean for Pork Pie Hatters? “I think that combining our two efforts is the right way to have a hat store because the same person that might buy the craziest hats that I make are also going to want the fisherman's cap or a fedora, or a bowler and those people are going to want the bowler to look exactly how it looks in like Deadwood. […] I think it's good especially for people who are really into hats to have a store like this where you have the full spectrum. Besides like a department store you would never really get that. And department stores in America are actually getting rid of [avant-garde headwear designer] Phillip Treacy and everything like that because Americans have a tendency to not take as many fashion risks in headwear so I think it's going to be an awesome combination and a real destination for hat wearers.”
It turns out this collaboration won't be such a stretch for everyone. For a long time Pork Pie Hatters and Ryan Wilde's Ida location had an almost symbiotic relationship, “Everything [at previous location Ida] was custom and it was amazing. But so many people would come in and ask for the classic pork pie, the classic trilby, the classic everything and you know, for someone like me I make hats to create looks, make something new, so that's not something I really wanted to focus on... When Pork Pie moved in, I thought 'Oh perfect!' I sent everyone here and then I started noticing that Sean and Colin were sending women to me, like if a guy was getting a classic straw hat his wife would say, 'Oh I want something, I want a fascinator', so they would come directly with the Pork Pie box to my store and get a fancy lady hat. I felt like there was a good connection between our two stores instantly.”
While I was there Ryan was working on a summery straw hat that fit in perfectly amongst the panamas and fedoras in the shop, a nod to the classic men's styles surrounding her. “I'm a hat maker when it comes down to it, I'm not trying to be Karl Lagerfeld. I really love making hats and I think that I make great ones. I've always been good at making sure they look cool and are wearable and accessible even when they're insane.” This connection is already starting to create wonderful things.
The Kentucky Derby, sometimes called the “Greatest 2 minutes in sports” is all about spectacle. And let's be honest, the horses are only a small fraction of the Derby's appeal. When I think of the Kentucky Derby I think of three things: mint juleps, pastel, and hats. Big hats, colorful hats, hats bursting with feathers and flowers; generally it's the ladies that get to be the headwear show ponies (Horse jokes! Don't hate.) but let's not forget that the Derby is where menswear gets to be playful. Brightly colored suits, pastel prints, preppy bowties, the styles aim towards taking the usual formality of suit and tie and turning it into a springtime celebration. The key is to have fun but maintain a tasteful elegance throughout, and with some of the custom brightly colored Borsalinos and Phrenology hats Porkpie Hatters has been making, it's becoming easier to bring this style outside of the tracks.
But wait, you may say, that may do well for Kentucky, but seersucker in the city? Yes seersucker in the city! Yes to an impeccable cream panama. Here's the biggest key to making a Kentucky Derby, southernly smooth, dandy gentleman look relevant to the gritty streets of NYC: Have fun with it. Not comfortable with wearing a full pastel suit? Pick elements that will pop like matching your necktie to a brightly colored hatband on your straw boater. Want to add a little edge to your look? Add some graffiti style prints to your repertoire. It's not for everyone but designer Walter van Beirondonck's Fall 2012 collection is one of my absolute favorites for turning formal menswear on its head. Though the runway looks themselves definitely skirt the edge of weird, there are positive elements to take away from the collection. Take note of the bright color combinations and the mixture of old-school prints with graphic details. It's about playing, taking details that we consider very prim and outmoded and literally cutting new shapes into them. The cuts are well tailored and slim. The print combinations and color choices are eye-catching and complimentary. It's not just being weird for weird's sake, it's holding up a mirror to what we attribute to formal wear. Although this collection was meant for a more in your face audience and colder weather (a leather bowler might be a bit much in the sun for both stylistic and practical reasons) the color choices, combination of prints, and colorful headwear to match are definite style notes to incorporate into a reasonable wardrobe.
The Kentucky Derby happens only once a year, but if we're breaking the seal on that light grey suit, I say keep it in play. Keep pairing the classics with unexpected twists, and you've got a look that is continually fresh and relevant. I'm actually going to quote the Kentucky Derby's official website where they opine on what's the usual attire for their event: “...Men just need to be confident. No matter what you wear, it's how you wear it, gentlemen.” I think that is great advice. Feel confident. Have fun. Go on, tip that brim to a jauntier angle, it's spring!
For those that feel they need a little more inspiration, I threw together a quick pinterest board, including actual looks from street snaps and such. The industry can oft bend towards fashion for fashion's sake so it's refreshing to see looks pulled off in the wild. Check it out here.
In Victorian times the hat stand was one of the most prominent pieces of furniture in the household, often the first thing seen upon entering. Because of this, hat stands evolved from being purely utilitarian to being a sign of wealth and taste, with decorative elements overshadowing utility. It was not long before displaying a hat was just as important as merely holding one. Unfortunately today it’d be impossible to fit an entire hallways worth of scribed wood and brass fastenings into the average New York apartment so Sean, owner of Pork Pie Hatters came up with a plan to find a better alternative. The goal: find a method of storing hats that fit into the NY lifestyle that was also a way of displaying pieces to their best effect.
For this project he hit up artist and engineer Matthew Borgatti, who has also been working with Pork Pie hatters on a number of other projects including cnc machined hat blocks and the door displays at both stores (more on this powerhouse collaboration later). A veteran of digital fabrication, Matthew immediately looked to his laser cutter for the answer to Sean’s dilemma. Because like anyone that has the ability to harness the power of lasers, one has to ask “should I use this for good or for awesome?” Modeled after vintage wig stands, the stand is designed to break down and set up with the use of a quarter while still maintaining the primary goals of being functional and attractive. Standing on three legs that end in pigtail curls, the wood is naturally outlined by the scorching left behind from the laser, similar to the way traditional woodworkers burn edges to create clean finishes. The advantage of using the laser cutter is that it handles several of the processes at once, cutting, finishing, and even engraving the tiny pig and Pork Pie logo with precision.
Although the construction of the hat stand was pretty straightforward, the packaging was another story. Looking for a way to convey a complete experience to the Pork Pie customer, Matthew looked to old school block printing techniques to get the proper feel for the packaging. Again using the laser cutter, he was able to etch the rubber and cut the various plates that comprise the printing jig. And although it took some finagling to get everything to fit just right, he was able to construct a customized printing press without waiting on specialty parts and redesigns.
Hat stands have become rare in a society obsessed with being fast and compact. But there is still a demand for keeping hats pristine like any investment in style; all without breaking the bank, taking up space or being an eyesore. The lasercut hat stand is just one of the ways Pork Pie Hatters has been using technology to bring back elements of the traditional. Everything from the hat stand itself to the rubber stamps used for its packaging have been made with a laser cutter, but as a means of streamlining old techniques of construction and printing not replacing. Who is to say we can’t revive the best of the past using the tools of the future?
If you want one of these stands for yourself, they'll soon be available online. In the meantime you can pick one up at Pork Pie Hatters or JJ Hat Center in person. To see more of the stands and what went into making them check out Numi's photos on Flickr.
PorkPie Hatters in Williamsburg is part hat store and part workshop. Beyond the cabinet stocked full of bowlers, fedoras, and panama hats is a clear view of craftsmen at work turning limp felt into the clean structured shapes we are familiar with. It is a little bit like magic. The billowing steam and measured pulls against the hat block make it seem like they are doing something supernatural and, to our modern society that disconnects makers and consumers, they are. The magic that happens isn't just that the shop makes hats by hand using a combination of old and new technology, but what that means on a larger scale for the American economy. Porkpie is one of many small companies on the forefront of a movement that is bringing competitive advantages back to the manufacturing process in the USA.
It's hard not to notice the growing prevalence of “Made in the USA” tags. Even in the visual overload of subway advertising, the “Made in NY” logo jumps out more and more. It's not just me, manufacturing in the US has been a consistent talking point in media lately from Time magazine to the Economist to President Obama's State of the Union address. According to Time Magazine “The U.S. Has seen its manufacturing growth outpace that of other advanced nations, with some 500,000 jobs created in the past three years. [...] Every $1 of manufacturing activity returns $1.48 to the economy.” It's being called the manufacturing renaissance and it is steadily raising the status of “Made in the USA” labels.
What is worth noting is that it is the small manufacturers and designers that are creating the bulk of this momentum. Realizing they cannot compete with large companies mass producing goods overseas, the focus of many of these small companies is on quality and innovation. All these factors have been creating greater demand for US made products. Willy Shih, co-author of Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance wrote “The ability to make things is fundamental to the ability to innovate things over the long term […] When you give up making products you lose a lot of the added value”. I'll go deeper into technological innovations with Porkpie in a later post (so watch for that), but what is important to take away from this quote is that the strength our economy gains from innovation can only be acquired through a history of domestic manufacturing. In Porkpie Hatters case, though it first opened its doors in 2011, owner Sean O'Toole comes from a long line of haberdashers and is no stranger to the process.
The hat you get from Porkpie has an element of the traditional, of old techniques and hand craftsmanship that sets it apart. The value of that end product is readily apparent. But to our changing economy the value of manufacturing in the US translates to a brighter future of growth overall. Having a shop that can produce traditional quality goods, customize instantly, and evolve its methods and technology with the demands of customers gives Porkpie a leading edge in this manufacturing renaissance.
We are New York's oldest and one of the world's most renowned hat shops. Established in 1911, we bring you the finest hats and caps coupled with excellent service and a staff consisting of some of the most knowledgeable hat people in the industry. We provide hands on service, expert advice and a well rounded selection of headwear that includes fedoras, newsboy caps, berets and much more.