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.
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