A couple of weeks ago, we reported from the Cuff link Convention in Chicago and while I was in the city, I paid Optimo Hats a visit. Due to the nature of the product and the clear devotion to quality and craftsmanship, Optimo is one of these stores that on first sight seems to be the last bastion of a bygone era. Fortunately, there is a growing clientele for this niche product – the hat.
The Optimo Hat Co History
As a teenager, Optimo Hat Co. owner Graham Thompson spotted several fine Panama hats on a trip to Hawaii, and they ultimately sparked a lifelong obsession. He flew to Ecuador, the home of the Panama hat, and brought back a number of unblocked and unfinished Panama straw hats – you can watch here how a Panama is made.
In order to pay for the trips, he worked as a bellboy at a hotel. While he was searching for a hatter who could block these beauties, he came across Johnny’s Hat Shop, which was owned by master hatter Johnny Tyus. When Tyus experienced health issues and wanted to retire in 1995, there was nobody in his family to take up the craft. However, Graham Thompson was more than willing to take over the gear, but also to learn anything Johnny knew about hat making. Tyus was truly the last of his kind, since the last hatter school in Chicago –the Unique Institute – had closed its doors in 1949. Within a year of taking over the business, Thompson changed the name to Optimo Hat Co. and moved the premises to the Beverly, IL at the South Side of Chicago. To outfit his business, he traveled all over the US in order to find hat equipment, blocks, and other tools from defunct hatters. He even travelled to Europe in order to buy machines. In fact, most of his hat-making machines were made just an hour away from my hometown in Germany.
The John Lee Hooker Story
Thompson has always been a blues fan, and he wanted to combine his passions by creating a hat for the blues legend John Lee Hooker. In 1995, Thompson discovered Hooker’s hat size, and a hat was finally made and sent to Hooker in the mail.
Considering how many gifts the blues star likely received from fans, Thompson did expect any response. However, it turned out he loved it and decided to wear nothing but Optimo hats until his death in 2001.
Apart from making the occasional celebrity gift, Optimo Hats also provides hats to the film industry. All the hats in the 30’s era film Public Enemies were custom made by Optimo. Johnny Depp, who is often seen wearing a hat in public, was so pleased that he even kept a number of hats for himself.
While the business was not always easy, Graham Thompson has established Optimo Hats Co. as one of the premier bespoke / custom hat producers in the US today. His fino fino Panama hats are the best Ecuador has to offer. He sources beaver, hare, muskrat and other felt bodies from Portugal, and he even revived the art of Milan straw hats. These are now made in China because that’s where the straw is still available. Optimo also tries to provide the best new ribbons and maintains a huge collection of vintage ribbons. The sweat bands are embossed with the company name in gold and the linings are sewn in by one of the 6 employees.
About 2 weeks prior to visiting Optimo Hats, I had the chance to see one of the largest collections of vintage European hats in the country, and therefore I had a good comparison point for quality standards back in the heyday of hat production. Generally, vintage hats are superior to their modern day equivalents because the sheer popularity of the hat – everybody wore them daily – created a larger pool of demand for the best quality. Today, certain things like seal velour hats simply cannot be sourced anymore. Also, the brim curl on a vintage bowler outshines the modern brims I saw at Optimo by far, but many traditional elements of hat making have either been lost, are too difficult to duplicate, or are too expensive to produce. For example, the Cavenaugh Edge, also known as Cav-Edge –a certain way of neatly finishing the brim – is not available at Optimo for the latter reason. Silk plush top hats are a modern casualty, as no manufacturers of silk plush remain. However, Optimo tries to produce the best dress hats possible in modern day, and they offer pretty much any style of dress hat.