I grew up in New Jersey and spent my twenties and early thirties in Boston, taking the Chinatown bus to NYC (back in the day for as little as $5) and staying with my uncle, who was kind enough to tolerate my often-impromptu visits and once all the members of Monkeyhouse, my dance company - the glitter never did come entirely out of the carpet. All of which is to say, I love the city and the chance to submerge myself in the food and culture of my native East Coast habitat. If you watch Hats & Crap, our Instagram Live series, you’ve probably heard me rant about pizza more than you would like.
Last summer, I started developing a collection of hats that we in the business call a “private label,” which is to say, hats I design and are only available at Brim. One of the major challenges in doing private label is that the minimums are high – usually over 100 pieces of a style, all in the same color. With only the Dayton market to sell to, it just didn’t make sense for us. We’ve been able to do small collections a few times with deadstock materials at one of the major factories, but this hasn’t been sustainable for every season and options are somewhat limited in terms of raw materials. But while Cha Cha was in town last summer for our annual trunk show, we started talking about doing private label out of her workshop.
One of the many things I love about Cha Cha is that she’s a truly innovative person who’s willing to try just about anything once. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the relaxed bohemian style hats she makes, but her technical knowledge of what will and won’t work and how to work around not having quite the right block is superb. When we’re talking through the design of a hat on the phone, I can hear the moment we land on a good idea in the tone of her voice. Sometimes, there are ideas that she has that I simply don’t understand or can’t picture, but after years of working together, I’ve learned to simply trust that it’s going to work. I love when she’s skeptical of an idea of mine that comes out great. She, too, has learned to trust me and it’s this mutual trust that makes our working relationship so strong.
So now I go to NYC twice a year to work on our collection with Cha Cha. She and I have a particular, fluid way of working together. Our process is often chaotic, with piles of ribbon, pins, flowers, and hat bodies laid out on the floor of her studio as we mix and match pieces until we hit on something good. During my last trip, I showed up with a suitcase full of trim materials – pins, bands, a beautiful sparkling tie that’s normally sold as a shoe lace, a massive macramé purse strap, traditional ribbons, hat bodies in interesting colors and textures, vintage deadstock ribbons, handmade flowers from Schmalberg (a heritage factory in NYC’s Garment District), and a giant pin shaped like a shrimp, among other things.
We’re in our second season of private label. There are a lot of lessons to learn from what worked and what didn’t. My team and I pay a lot of attention to what our customers say, what they’re looking for, and what we can source from an existing brand. This is often the starting place for what I design – we’re filling holes in the market and, to be honest, there are a lot of holes in the market.
This summer, we have a rich collection of often quirky hats that are surprisingly versatile and easy to wear. These feature Dutch wax print flowers from the Schmalberg factory in the Garment District (it’s always a pleasure to visit), Gucci inspired leopard ribbon, wonderfully textured woven hat bodies, and our late in the season arrival, a perfect two-tone festival/concert hat. I love everything we made of this season’s collection. I feel 100% dorkily proud of it. We also have some beautiful, dressy panamas with trim that’s just a bit outside of the ordinary.
One of my constant complaints about the hat industry as a whole is how disinclined we are to take risks, to push what we can make, and to test new goods in the market. A lot of brands out there are all making the same hats over and over and over (I’m looking at you, Big Dumb Hat). Don’t get me wrong, I love a classic hat like the Stetson Stratoliner that’s been in constant production for decades. There’s something magical about being able to buy the hat that your grandfather wore. But there’s also room for innovation, for developing things that we didn’t even know we wanted.
Hat wearing and hat shopping should be fun. You should love how your hat makes your feel – and that’s what I’m striving for in both our private label and our collection from other makers.