Graham Thompson

"The South Side of Chicago is one place hats never went out of style"

Graham Thompson (Optimo Hats)

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An East-European aristocrat remembers in his memoirs that his grandfather, a diplomat of the Russian empire, never walked out of his house without his Homburg hat, otherwise people would have thought that he was going eihter mad or to a funeral. Nowadays, in Europe we witness the rebirth of the Hat. Why did we stop wearing hats in the first place and how come did we change our mind lately?

Great dress hats are as classic and timeless as dress shoes or a tailored suit. Many of us have begun to wear hats again because of a renewed appreciation for classics…but also, because wearing hats is uncommon nowadays and therefore appeals to individualists, to those who don’t feel the need to ‘fit in‘ with the mainstream. Why did we stop wearing hats? The main reason was the spread and increasing popularity of the automobile. Hats were much more of a necessity when people spent more time outdoors. The per capita hat production peaked in the U.S. (and likely in Europeas as well) around 1915. Hats were still very popular until the 1950s– but the more time people spent indoors and in cars, the less they wore hats. Also, men’s dress hats began to drastically decline in terms of quality and style from the early 1960s and went straight downhill from there. Hats began to look tired and conservative – companies forced employees to wear them as part of the professional dress codemaking  - which made hats even more unpopular.

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How serious are Chicago men about hats?

Chicago has a long tradition with men’s hats. Only a few decades ago, Chicago was known for its great hat shops. Famous  stores like Baskin’s, Caper & Caper and Marshall Field’s all had superb hat departments selling the great makes of hats from France, Italy, UK, Austria, Germany and the U.S.  On Chicago’s South Side there were dozens of haberdasheries and hatters that sold to serious hat wearers. Amongst them were Johnny’s hat shop and famous Burt’s clothes on 47th Street. The South Side of Chicago is one place hats never went out of style. This is where Optimo  hats heritage comes from and represents one of the reasons for which the manufacturer continues to make his hats there.

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Johnny Tyus

I read that you were inspired in founding Optimo  hats by Johnny’s hats, the original hat making company in Chicago ran by Johnny Tyus. How did Optimo  story begin?

As a teenager, I loved hats. My favorite hats were those I would see in old films… Worn by Jimmy Cagney, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles, and Edward G. Robinson.

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You could tell the guys who looked good in hats loved to wear them. As a teenager I wondered where I could find a hat like that.  Great hats had disappeared from the market by then. I researched a lot and heard about a legendary hatter on Chicago’s south side. I drove to his shop and met Johnny. His shop was small and packed with hats–and I loved it. I got to know Johnny and he let me hang out behind the counter and learn about hats. I loved the customers who would visit– a mix of professionals, local neighborhood guys, hustlers–and occasionally a famous blues musician would drop by (Willie Dixon was a regular). The movies would call on Johnny sometimes, too. He made Robert de Niro’s hat for the Untouchables.  So cool!

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Graham Thompson & Johnny Tyus

Years later, when I returned from university, I took a visit to Johnny’s. He told me he was retiring after making hats nearly 50 years. That was sad news, but by the time I had returned home, I picked up the phone and called him… ‘Is anyone taking over the business?‘… When he said no, I asked if I could talk to him about getting into the business. I had no money but Johnny made a deal with me to pay him for his equipment and apprenticeship over a three year period. I never missed a payment– and we ended up working together for years after that, too. It was really, really tough in the beginning. I got every credit card I could get my hands on and barely made it through year one. I learned a lot in the first year, though.

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The Chicago Sun-Times newspaper ran a story about us after one year in business and that was a turning point. Since then, I have reinvested over and over in rare hat tools, machinery, supplies and our workshop. I have also learned from many other people in the hat business (most of whom are retired or have now died). I feel I got into it at the last possible moment to obtain the tools and knowledge of this rare trade that was on the brink of extinction.

Hats

Can you give us a run-down of the most appreciated hat styles nowadays?

Classic, well-designed versions of the fedora, homburg, pork-pie  derby– and fedoras and plantation styles in our soft panama hats. We make many unusual styles for all sorts of people… But the most appreciated and popular are the classics.

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A ribbon’s width, color and texture can transform a hat’s character”.  In what way?

The subtle details and how a person wears a hat greatly effect how a hat looks. These details need to be right for a well-proportioned/ balanced hat.

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What are the secrets of a properly fitted hat?

Not too tight… In fact, just a fraction loose– great hats tend to ‘conform’ to the wearer and we aim for an ‘air cushion’ fit. So the hat is a pleasure to wear and never tight— but when it is very windy outside, the hat can be pulled down low across the forehead and it wont blow off.

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How many Gentlemen work with you in the workshop and what special machines or tools are used?

Only 5 people work in production now. I am personally involved in every hat. Lots of special machines are used. Almost all our tools and machinery date from 1920-1950… Although we have some machines in our straw workshop that are from 1899. we have a virtual museum of rare hat tools and machines from Austria, Germany, France, England, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and, of course, the U.S.

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I have visited factories all over the world and done tons of research… I have tried to combine the best tools and techniques to make the finest hats. In general, the hat industry has continued to cut costs by using cheaper quality materials and eliminating steps in production. Optimo hats has done the opposite. We are constantly trying to improve the quality of our materials and our production. It seems like every year we add extra steps to our hatmaking– which add to the refinement of our hats.

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Where do you get the felt and other materials from? I heard you travel to Ecuador for Panamas…

Our felts are custom-made for Optimo in Europe. I also travel to Ecuador to buy our panama material and commission new straws a couple times a year. We are also constantly pushing for quality to improve on the panamas. I am proud that our Montecristi panamas are beautifully woven and finished. Just like 100 years ago.

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From your point of view what model is the king of all kings?

For straw – The Montecristi Ultrafino. In felt – our silver belly 1000.

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What is the story of Optimo Milan hat?

This is a straw that is nearly extinct and we are doing our best to develop and sell it. The story of Optimo Milan is very interesting as is it the story of a rebirth. Made from hand-braided wheat straw, hatters have mostly abandoned making the Milan in the last 50 years, due to the high cost of producing the braid. Nowadays Milan hats are made with hemp, synthetic fibres, or a very coarse version of the straw braid.

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Optimo is proud to bring the authentic Milan hat back from extinction locating a region in rural China which first began making this weave in the 1800s. We have  encouraged them to produce a straw braid that was once again worthy of the Milan name:  finely woven and richly colored. Next came a three-year process in which Optimo convinced the farmers to convert back to their old habits (no fertilizer, covering the crops), in order to produce a more attractive, stronger product. Today, the straw is the best quality possible, and the weavers themselves are happy too, as they prefer working on higher quality products.

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What was the story of Public Enemy hats?

They contacted us for hats… That was great because I am a big Michael Mann fan. The costume director, Colleen Atwood, is amazing and so we didn’t need to do much research. She told us what to make– and, thankfully, it was for period-correct hats. We have worked on many films, but that was the most fun. We’re going to do hats for Mann’s next film, too– just starting production. Some of the other films we’ve done hats for include: Road to Perdition (made hats for Daniel Craig before the bond era), Cinderella Man, J. Edgar, Gangster Squad…. also just did  Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Broadway.

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What famous clients did you have over the years?

Some that come to mind are the late blues legend John Lee Hooker, Johnny Depp, Jack White, Andy Garcia, John C. Reilly or Bernie Mac. In film we have made hats for Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn and many more…

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How many hats do you have and what models do you like the most and why?

I have only about 12 hats! I prefer the Chicago, Club and Lasalle style. They just feel right when I wear them. Some of my hats also have little custom touches like unique bow styles.

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Optimo Logo Gray

The Optimo Teardrop in mIlan straw

Optimo Teardrop 

the optimo oxford

Optimo Oxford

The Optimo Mitchum

Optimo Mitchum

The Optimo Lasalle

Optimo Lasalle

The Optimo John Lee Hooker

Optimo John Lee Hooker

The Optimo Gambler

Optimo Gambler

The Optimo Chicago

Optimo Chicago

The Optimo Chicago Special

Optimo Chicago Special

Optimo Logo Gray