There are two kinds of people in the world of hats: the faithful and the converts. Some say they're just not hat people at all. But, according to a few local hat makers and dealers, maybe they just haven't found the right hat yet.
The Hat Faithful
"We take people who are petrified and make them hat fanatics," says JD Noble of the Santa Fe Hat Company, with a hint of evangelical glee.
Presiding over a historic space just off the Plaza, a building that until recently was known as the old Montecristi hat shop, Noble ***image1***and Valeria Alarcón-Gibbons of the Santa Fe Hat Company (an offshoot of the Montecristi Custom Hat Works) have set out on a mission to educate and deliver the sophisticated gospel of the hat to the unsuspecting masses.
"Some people don't understand," Alarcón-Gibbons says, "they think a hat is just a hat. But it's not."
The body of an El Fino Panama hat, for example, made in Cuenca, Ecuador, can take from three months to a year to weave. Hand selected and brought to Santa Fe by Montecristi owner Milton Johnson, it is then painstakingly handcrafted by local bench hatters.
A hat novice, or a seasoned hat-freak, can come into a place like the Santa Fe Hat Company, have the contours of their head measured, and select the exact style they desire, in the material they desire, from a cowboy style Panama with a turquoise-silver trim to an urbane fedora-style fur felt Borsalino. The result is an heirloom-quality $350-$5,000 work of art, treasured by celebrities, ranchers, normal Joes and Japanese tourists alike.
Flight of Fancy
Or in the case of local milliner Joan Carney, one can take it a step further, and request a tiny cocktail hat piled high with flowers and berries, a straw bonnet or even an ostrich feather headdress.
"You can be surprised sometimes that certain kinds of people like certain kinds of hats," Carney ***image2***says.
A veteran costumer for the New York theatre, a painter and former globetrotting window dresser, Carney is familiar with all species of hat aficionado, from the closet hat-hoarder to the party-circuit extrovert. She's seen and made just about every kind of hat imaginable, and eschewing any type of production line aesthetic, she has rarely made the same hat twice.
Working out of a cozy studio off West Alameda Street, Carney used to sell her crafts at the artists' section of the Farmer's Market, and later at Double Take, but for the last few years-and especially since an explosive showing at the Second Street Experience fashion show this past summer-she mostly does custom work for individual clients.
Crafting a hat is no easy task; every piece requires a special mold, known as a block, which is made to specific measurements out of wood. The materials for a hat, be they felt or straw, are then steamed and carefully stretched over the blocks. The final touch, the trim, is where the real fantasy comes in: Applied by hand, the icing on the cake can come in the form of veils, feathers, jewels, buttons or meticulously worked grosgrain ribbons.
In this realm Carney really takes off on flights of fancy; bonnets, fedoras, bowlers, veils, and hats that are too original to even have a name, are all individually accented, creating something that is consistently unique.
Joy, Joy, Joy
Today, a hat is perhaps the last bastion of couture in American fashion,
hearkening back to a time when real craftsmanship was accessible to more than just the socialites and the Sarah Jessica Parkers. And even for those who maybe can't afford true craftsmanship, with headwear there is at least the ephemeral opportunity for individuality.
Madrid-based Uta Brauser, creator of the Funky City Baby line, calls a hat "an expression of joy." Infused with humor and quite a bit of love, her animal-inspired hats-available in the artist's section of the Farmer's Market and the Talking Bridge Café in Madrid-certainly separate one from the crowd.
From fake fur and animal-printed polar fleece, Brauser crafts coyote hats with pointy noses; hats with bear ears, floppy dog ears, leopard and tiger ears; as well as hats with flower petals and curly-headed elf hats. Originally conceived in New York for her young son Ezra, the hats are mostly for kids, but flooded by requests from ***image4***anxious adults, Brauser has also created hats for the "big baby."
Those who preach the Word of the Hat cannot really say if a hat will redeem you, but besides keeping your head warm, it might just feed your soul a little. JD Noble of the Santa Fe Hat Company is convinced that hats "work magic," and Carney just shrugs and smiles genuinely, "there are just people who love hats."