Optimo Hats

A century ago, the hat was an indispensable part of a man’s wardrobe. A gent simply didn’t leave the house without a topper of some sort on his noggin.

Sadly, the wearing of hats is a virtually lost art. From time-to-time, I see articles prognosticating a hat-wearing renaissance. Don’t believe them. Hats will never be the universal garment they once were. Their ubiquity belongs to a bygone era. They are, today, a niche product, worn principally by men who crave a certain panache or for those who cultivate a dandyish air.

A sartorial urban legend holds that John F. Kennedy went hatless at his inauguration, putting the figurative nail in the coffin of the American hat industry. He didn’t; by the time of the Kennedy presidency, hat wearing was already on a downward trend. The counterculture of the late 1960s hastened the decline.

I’m one of the tonsorially challenged, so the hat for me is more than a stylish accompaniment. It’s a practical garment: beaver fur for warmth in winter and straw for a bit of self-created shade in the summer.

For several years, I bought most of my hats from a now defunct hatter in Houston. In June 2009, on a family vacation to Chicago, I made a pilgrimage to one of the true Meccas of custom hat making: Optimo Hats.

Walking into the store on the far South side of Chicago was like being transported to another, more genteel age. After some initial pleasantries, my head was measured, and I began the process of picking out the material for a winter fedora. I opted for a taupe beaver fur with a rolled edge.

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My first Optimo hat

My head is of the neither fish nor fowl variety–too narrow for a standard fit yet too wide for a long oval–making me an ideal candidate for a custom hat. The fine folks at Optimo have built my hats to accommodate that shape. In addition, they can produce hats with a sizing precision unavailable in non-custom hats.

Two Panama hats have since followed (one is pictured below). More so than just about anything I wear, my Optimo Hats are likely to elicit complements from passers-by, a true testament to the craftsmanship of one of the great American makers of custom hats.

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Classic Style: Thrift Store Edition

From time to time, Fran and I venture off into the region’s thrift stores. With some persistence, this can be an excellent way to pick up some classic pieces at a fraction of the original retail cost. Most of the time, we come up empty. But occasionally a bit of treasure crops up amid all the cast-off detritus.

Last Saturday was shaping up to be one of the many fruitless trips when I caught sight of a beautiful, Nordic-styled sweater.

At first glance, I thought it was a Dale of Norway sweater (which would have been something special in its own right). But a quick perusal of the tag showed it to be an L.L. Bean sweater–from a time when such things were still American made.

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Although it will be held in abeyance until fall beckons, it should be an ideal sweater for Fran to take up with her to school in the East: warm, attractive and roomy enough for layering underneath.

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Hamilton Shirts

For those of us with a penchant for custom clothing, living a community far removed from the centers of bespoke tailoring can be a disheartening prospect.

Fortunately, for the sartorially-inclined in Southeast Texas, there’s an oasis in the desert: Hamilton Shirts.

Hamilton has been around since 1883, two years longer in fact than Britain’s Turnbull & Asser.

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Today, the firm is run by siblings David and Kelly Hamilton. Their shop is located west of the Houston Galleria in a fairly unassuming location on Richmond Avenue.

The showroom is appropriately clubby in appearance and atmosphere. Although you can relax and thumb through the books containing small swatches of fabric, the real action is right off the showroom floor, in the shelves lining the factory. Here, bolts of fabric await–herringbones and plaids, tattersalls and solids–and there’s something about looking at a wide expanse of fabric that adds to the verisimilitude of the bespoke process. I’m a sucker for checks, and Hamilton has them in abundance.

I have nine Hamilton custom shirts, purchased at various points over the past seven years. All are still in regular rotation, although my oldest button down is beginning to fray about the cuffs. No matter–it only adds to the shirt’s allure, giving it that well-lived-in feeling.

The shirts have much of what the clothing cognoscenti fetishize, including a split yoke and thick mother-of-pearl buttons. My lone complaint is the lack of pattern matching on the sleeve gauntlets, but it’s a fairly minor lament.

In addition to their custom business, Hamilton produces ready-to-wear shirts, all, to my knowledge, made in their Houston shop. They also offer a line of tailored clothing (suits, jackets and trousers) made in conjunction with an unnamed “American tailoring firm.”

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One of my bespoke shirts from Hamilton

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Kent Wang: Modern Haberdasher

The pocket square… It’s arguably the most superfluous of men’s clothing. After all, it’s but a meager dimension of silk, linen, cotton or wool whose only purpose is to decorate the pocket of a man’s jacket.

But what a purpose that is!

Cary Grant in North by Northwest notwithstanding, it’s difficult for a man to aspire to be well attired without learning the nuances of the pocket square.

For my money, one of the leading purveyors of pocket squares today is Kent Wang. I met Kent online several years ago when we were both regular inhabitants of styleforum.net. While I remained a clothing hobbyist, Kent entered the professional ranks, starting his online business with a range of pocket squares.

Today, Kent has branched out into many different aspects of men’s clothing, although I’m still partial to his  squares, particularly the linens. They’re pretty reasonably priced as these things go, and several of them are made domestically.

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Two of the six Kent Wang pocket squares in my collection
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Yours truly with a Kent Wang pocket square in full deployment

The Bean Boot: An Icon Among Classics

While recent years have seen L.L. Bean relocate much of its production overseas (particularly to countries dominated by sweatshop labor), the Bean Boot is still produced, as it has been for more than 100 years, in Maine.

The boot was L.L. Bean’s founding product. In 1912, Leon Bean, having obtained a list of out-of-state holders of Maine hunting permits, sent out an advertisement for what he called his Maine Hunting Shoe (leather uppers for breathability and rubber bottoms for waterproofness).  He offered an unconditional guarantee, and, legend has it, 90 of the first 100 boots were returned. Although it nearly scuttled Bean’s business prospects, Bean remained true to his word. He tweaked the design and sent out replacement boots.

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So when it came time to buy a pair of boots for Fran as she prepares for school in the East (with prospects of unfamiliar weather to a girl from the Gulf Coast), the Bean Boot was on the top of our list. Little did I know that the boot had, as such things do from time-to-time, insinuated itself back into fashion, and so the good folks at L.L. Bean were scrambling to keep up with demand. After about a month-and-a-half of patient waiting, the boots arrived on our doorstep.

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Fran’s new Bean Boots with socks courtesy of Dad
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The chain link sole

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Kiel James Patrick

A couple of weeks ago, I happened upon the website for Kiel James Patrick. Primarily a manufacturer of American-made anchor bracelets, they also have some very nice Made in America clothing. I was particularly taken by their ladies Scallop Oxford, an oxford cloth shirt with a unique scalloped collar.

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So I ordered one on-line for my daughter. She, not surprisingly, was delighted. It really is a very nicely made shirt: 100 percent cotton, mother of pearl buttons, box pleat in the back with locker loop.

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A Manifesto

We’ve set up this blog with a special purpose: to celebrate the companies, small and large, who continue to make classic American clothing in American communities with American workers. At a time when even the stalwarts of American style–once venerable firms like Brooks Brothers and L.L. Bean–have migrated much of their production to the developing world, we aim to highlight those manufacturers who have resisted the impulse to outsource.

Our guiding principles:

  1. Wherever possible, buy American. We mean this not as an expression of empty-headed jingoism. We mean it instead as a desire to breathe life into and celebrate American manufacturing.
  2. Learn to view clothing less through the lens of fashion and more through the lens of style. Fashion changes. Style endures. A well-made, classic piece from 30 years ago is just as wearable today as it was when it was bought.
  3. An emphasis on thrift. On one level, this might seem counter-intuitive. But it’s a recognition that well-made clothing can and should last for decades.
  4. A willingness to pay more for well-produced goods. At least in the short term.
  5. A recognition that Made in America is not a panacea. Well-made goods can be found around the world: Scottish cashmere. English shoes and suits. Italian ties.