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Head for Business

Why Graham Thompson is America’s top hatmaker

(page 1 of 3)

Thompson dons a classic chocolate-brown fedora, yours for around $500.

As a teenager during the 1980s—the era of sneaker-wearing Peter Pan icons such as Ferris Bueller—Graham Thompson preferred rakish fedoras and Robert Mitchum. Film noir style, especially the hats, intrigued Thompson, who, as a high school student in Chicago, started hanging out at an institution that took custom headgear seriously: Johnny’s Hat Shop on the South Side. When the store’s eponymous owner, Johnny Tyus, announced his retirement in 1995, Thompson bought Tyus’s machinery and pursued a dream. Almost immediately, Thompson opened Optimo Fine Hats in Beverly. Now, Optimo is the place in America for factory-method hat-making. 

Setting a crease using steam.

A large part of the store’s success comes from Thompson’s devotion to mastering the craft.  Since opening Optimo 14 years ago, he’s made frequent trips to Italy, France, Germany, and Ecuador to purchase traditional machinery and refine his old factory techniques. (The week-long process involves stretching, steaming, ironing, sanding, and trimming.) But success wasn’t immediate for Thompson. After all that buying and traveling, money got tight. “I was seriously in debt and grabbing every credit card offer I could get,” he says.

His struggle has paid off: “I can honestly say that we’re making the best hats in the world.”

The film industry certainly thinks so. This summer, his handcrafted hats land on the heads of Johnny Depp (as legendary bank robber John Dillinger) and Christian Bale (as FBI agent Melvin Purvis) in the gangster thriller Public Enemies.

Stepping inside Optimo conjures up a bygone era not unfamiliar to the days of Dillinger or Purvis. Orderly rows of hat blocks sit in wooden cubbyholes. The machines look satisfyingly archaic. A black chalkboard lists the prices and services. Cadillac drivers pass the store donning stylish lids. “We make hats that would have been great in the 1930s,” he says.” It’s this vibe that Thompson loves, which is why he nestled his store in this neighborhood—just a few miles from Johnny’s old place. Here in Beverly, the hat never really went away.

But the 37-year-old Thompson doesn’t want to serve only veteran hat wearers and period films. “It always crossed my mind—like, what’s going to happen when all of our older customers pass on?” he says. “Are they going to be replaced?”

These days, he isn’t worrying as much. Hats are back in fashion. Thompson thinks the resurgence owes more to the removal of old stigmas than to the runway or to phenomena such as the television drama Mad Men: “One of the reasons that hats went out is that they became very conservative. It was part of a uniform for a company man,” he says. “Now, a new generation of hat wearers only sees the glamorous side. It’s a way to assert personality.”

Depp, who took home several of Thompson’s hats after filming Public Enemies in Chicago, is the poster boy for this new kind of hat wearer. His bohemian and eccentric flair doesn’t so much recall Robert Mitchum in, say, Out of the Past, but Depp still has that cool and mysterious aura. He’s out there wearing hats like it’s no big deal. That’s what Thompson admires most about Depp and those old film noir actors: they aren’t precious. “Hats look best on actors who really respect and enjoy hats—but that doesn’t mean they are super gentle with them,” he says. “I can just tell the real hat guys.”



Photography: Anna Knott


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