You have seen this trend everywhere. Luxurious, custom hats that have been burned, scuffed up, and funkily adorned with feathers, charms, and trinkets. These hats become wearable art sported proudly by an owner who knows there isn’t another one like it in the world.
While many brands and stores are jumping on the hat decorating train, hat makers — the true, bespoke milliners who take the raw material and shape it into a hat before any embellishment — seem to be unicorns within this fashion craze. I spoke with four hat makers across the South about their processes, qualms, and triumphs navigating the hat mania that seems to have caught fire in recent years. You’ll be opening a new tab to book a custom fitting by the end of this piece.
ML Provisions: Her hats are inspired by the West, made in the South
About half an hour south of Jackson, MS, Mary Landrum Pyron runs her hat business — the first of its kind in Mississippi — out of a 175-year-old barn on her family’s timber farm. When you order a hat from ML Provisions, you are loosely agreeing to a trip to rural Mississippi.
“To get the perfect fit, you really need to visit your hat maker in person,” Mary Landrum says. Beyond the fitting, she gets to hang out with her customers and soak up their vision. She also gets to reveal to them the fascinating and painstaking process of true hat-making.
After graduating from Ole Miss in 2016, Mary Landrum worked as an expedition chef and caterer for A Bar A Ranch in Wyoming. The hat she wore as part of her everyday uniform quickly became much more than that. “I kept collecting and finally got my own custom ranch hat,” she says. Implementing the skills and inspiration she collected on the mountain, working in a ski shop and designing for a florist, Mary Landrum took the plunge into hat-making. Dreams of taking a mobile hat shop on the road soon led her home to Crystal Springs, MS, where she has — quite literally — set up shop.
It was hard at the beginning — she missed the Western lifestyle of skiing, hiking, and playing every day. She was plopped back in Mississippi, running a business that was getting more buzz by the day. “I don’t have a website currently because everyone is doing a good job of coming into Crystal Springs. I never thought I would be this busy,” she says. Though many people who make the journey as part of their hat-buying experience are forced outside their comfort zone, Mary adds, “Sometimes I have to shoo people out because they’re having so much fun!”
It takes Mary Landrum about eight hours to make one hat. Starting with the raw felt hat body (she works with a few different variations of beaver felt, as most hat makers of this kind do), she “blocks” the hat to the correct head size. She then cuts the brim to the desired size. (Western hats, for example, have a 4″ to 4.5″ brim.) Next, she sands and irons the crown, singes the fur on the crown, uses the correct band block to keep the size uniform, and sews in the sweatband. Then begins the process of adding the bells and whistles.
A. Botts Willis: From corporate NYC fashion world to accidental hat maker
Ashley Botts of A. Botts Willis was inspired to become a hat maker by accident. While working in the corporate fashion industry, Ashley enrolled in different classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) merely out of curiosity. “I decided to take a millinery class, and my first teacher, Mrs. Nora Navarro, completely changed my career path!” she tells me. “I was so inspired by her class that it was this ah-ha moment for me. Hatmaking was what I was meant to do!”
Ashley is a one-woman show working out of a vibrant mobile workshop-on-wheels in Nashville, and she is proud of the small business she’s nurturing. “I started the business full-time in 2018 after leaving the corporate fashion world in NYC.” Having grown up in Shelby, NC, a lot of Ashley’s inspiration stems from the culture around her. “I grew up antiquing with my family and now use that knowledge to collect antique and vintage pieces to put on my custom hats,” she says.
Ashley points out a pervasive misconception about the hatmaking world: the huge amount of time it takes to make the hat itself before any trimming goes into it. “It’s hours of hands-on work. A lot of people in the industry use the word ‘custom’ to describe a process very different from mine. Sometimes people come to me and don’t understand that I custom-make the actual hat, rather than only putting custom trims on a pre-made hat.”
To Ashley, the hat-making process does not end when she delivers the hat into the customer’s hands. “It’s so important to me to see where that hat goes and what it becomes,” she adds. Her favorite projects are those in which the buyer gives her free creative reign. “I just recently worked with a client who is a painter, and he gave me creative freedom to do what I wanted. I took a lot of inspiration from his paintings with color and textures to come up with a perfect hat for him. It’s a lot of fun working with another creative or being inspired by them for a project,” she says.
Kali Handcrafted Fashion: Shifting from only decorating to making AND decorating
After being in the hat decorating business for a while, Perla Stortzum of Kali Handcrafted Fashion decided to learn how to hand-make the hats as well as adorn them. She trained under a professional hat maker in Mexico in the fall of 2019 and brought her skills back to her Newnan, Georgia-based boutique and workshop. “When you buy a hat from [me],” Perla tells me, “you’re not only taking a unique piece with you. You’re taking with you the passion, culture, and traditions of the hat maker.”
Perla felt drawn to hat-making through her love for eclectic feminine fashion and statement-making pieces that can enhance the beauty of the person who wears them. The only downside she has encountered, much like the other makers I spoke with, is the misunderstanding about the amount of time and dedication it takes to make a hat from scratch. “[People] sometimes complain about long lead times and higher prices. Some people just don’t see the value,” she says. But the ones who do are happy they waited and are thrilled with their investment. “I don’t repeat designs,” Perla says. “Every hat is a new opportunity to let my creativity fly.”
Simontacchi Hats: A musician-turned-photographer-turned-hat-maker ahead of his time
Scott Simontacchi has lived in Nashville for 22 years as a professional musician and photographer. “I figured, why not start a third craft?” Scott tells me. “These three arts actually work off of each other. I photograph musicians and bring my hats, which sometimes results in a sale. I play gigs wearing my hats and sell them off of my head. I like to call this the trifecta of my livelihood.” Scotts launched Simontacchi Hats in November of 2017, well before all the buzz around custom hats became the deafening roar it is today.
“My love for hats began as a child watching old Westerns and other period shows on TV,” Scotts tells me. “Later on, I developed an interest in fedoras that singers like Frank Sinatra wore. Most of my builds reflect a blend of those two genres: old Westerns and Sinatra.” One misconception that Scott hears about hat makers is the belief that they make their own felts by hand. “I’m not saying that there are no hatters who make the felt themselves; I just haven’t heard of any!”
One of Scott’s beginning challenges, in fact, was finding the proper felting plant. “The felting plants have old machinery that is used to felt the beaver fur,” he elaborates. “It’s a huge process on their end.” Scott uses Winchester Hat Corporation and says that his first visit was like taking a time machine back to 1960. “They opened up many doors into a world that was full of other professionals wanting to teach and coach me. I haven’t looked back since that day!”
“This hat-making community is full of expert builders who want to see new hatters prevail, and that is priceless,” Scott says.
And with that, hats off to you, hat makers across the South and beyond!
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