Saturday, September 14, 2013

Brass Rooster, That Funky Rooster

I love Paris, I love France, I love ladies' pretty hats. Wait, that's not how the tune goes? Oh. Okay.

But, I do love hats.

So when a shop called The Brass Rooster opened in Bay View in 2011, I got very excited. Granted, most of what they sell is for men, but I happen to look good in a man's hat, so I'm okay with that. A quality fedora looks just as great on the gals, if not better, than on the dudes.

Skip ahead two and a half years. We book an event with Antoine Laurain, the French author of a delightful little novel. The President's Hat is about a notable politician's lost hat that changes the fates of all who come in contact with it. Daniel wants a window display to help promote the book and the event. As fate would have it, we had another Paris-based novelist the month before so it was really a matter of making one window and then tweaking it. Our tweak this time would be bringing The Brass Rooster on board as a co-sponsor for the event. Basically, that just means we ask someone if they want us to promote them in exchange for them promoting our event. It gives us a chance to reach a wider audience and also support other local businesses and nonprofits.

In getting ready to transition the window from Toby Barlow's Cold War-era Paris to 1980's Paris under Mitterand's presidency, I went to Brass Rooster to see about gathering some props from them to garnish the new display. While there, I took some time to chat with them about their shop and craft.

The first thing you need to know is that Kate and John McLaughlin are two of only twelve Master Hatters nationwide: TWO! When they first opened, they stocked their shelves with only the finest hats from the classiest names; brands that have been around for generations from milliners who have their hats constructed using quality materials, with traditional tools and equipment. John explained how much it irks him that a particularly popular hat company pitches itself as a hat maker when the reality is they copy crafted styles (their buyer's title is along the lines of "prop master"), have their product mass-produced in China, then charge fashionably high prices.

This commitment to craft and ethical business practices, instead of just selling a product, is what makes Brass Rooster stand out. John and Kate didn't want to just be a hat shop, even one that made quality products available for anyone, regardless of income level. Instead, they set themselves up as a traditional haberdashery: one that sells, repairs, and does original work in the form of custom hats, molded for your head with materials you select. They're happy to guide and advise, of course.

Custom hats range from $195-395, depending on materials used, though one thing remains standard across all the hats K&J make: materials are carefully chosen and American sourced. For example their fur felt all comes from Tennessee.
The leather sweat bands that line the hats? They are Roan goat leather from a third-generation farm. The grosgrain ribbon they use is the only thing to come from outside the U.S., usually from the U.K. because it's hard to find real grosgrain here. The default is a classic, salvage edged ribbon, though the colors and finish vary widely depending on the customer's preference. One of the hats I saw had mohair grosgrain, furred along the edges. I wanted to snuggle it.

Even with all that care, the turnaround time on a custom order is often only a day or so. After you've had your hat measured, made your style & material & color & detail selections, of course. If you're Kid Rock, though, and you call up John because you heard he does nice work, you order your hat at 2pm and it's in your dressing room by 8, in time for your appearance in front of thousands of Harley Riders, sporting a spiffy new hat made right in Harley's hometown of Milwaukee. If you're Kid Rock and you like the work, you call up the shop to thank them and tell them you'll be in touch for more.

Earlier this year, they took their custom work a step further, launching their own original hat line (already being carried in 11 shops and 9 locations across the country). They are cool, sexy, manly, slick, warm, doffable things with beautiful color combinations like black cherry & steel, navy & sienna, and loden & bonsai. The devil is in the details here, and as I turn one hat and another over in my hands, examining the differences in stitching style and color, how the ribbing on one hat runs vertical but runs diagonal on another, I realize: I WANT THEM ALL!

Kate is a magnetic presence in the store, tall with rockabilly hair and luscious red lipstick, but John is definitely the one on stage. He acts out everything as he says it, particularly while describing what happens to guys who come in their shop:

"It's remarkable. First, he'll wander around, just looking, occasionally touching a hat. Eventually, he'll pick one out and," slouching a little, John grabs a hat from the window and puts it on his head, "put it on. Right away, he stands up taller. He turns around and walks to the mirror, not noticing there's a change in his gait already." Here, John saunters towards one of the large mirrors by an organ standing against an inside wall, a skip in his step, and eyes his reflections, adjusting the hat this way and that, tipping it forward and back, angling his head a little. "The best part is when he's bought the hat, we'll offer to box it up and the answer is almost always 'no, thanks.' Then, he'll walk out the door. But," here John pauses dramatically, smiling "he will forget we can see him through these windows and after he exits, he'll stop on the sidewalk for a moment. Every single one of them does this. He'll stop, look left, right, then abruptly turn and stride off with purpose."

A woman comes in the door with her two kids. John and Kate step into swift action. They move seamlessly within this small space, Kate telling John where the customer's hat is, and also greeting the woman like an old friend, asking how she's doing, how wedding plans are going. The customer is a bride-to-be and has just come from the hairdresser who has done a beautiful pin-up style on her. We ooh and ah over it.

John brings out a box, opening it up and offering it to the woman delicately, fingertips barely brushing the edges. It's a large thing with a wide brim, the kind you'd see on a cowboy's head, except for the fact that it is white—pure white with a thick white ribbon encircling the crown. It's gorgeous, practically glows in the sunlight streaming through the big picture window. The bride beams, and says to the little boy she's got balanced on her hip, "Papa's gonna look so fly," before putting him down on the leather settee. As the remainder of the bill is settled up, Kate points out they can adjust the fit, to please let them know if it's not right, and the customer shoos away Kate's comment saying, "I trust you guys."

After chatting a while longer about the differences in wedding traditions of various Hispanic and Latino cultures, as well as talking about parenting kids who are nearly school-age while John places a hat on the head of each kid, eliciting buoyant giggles, thank-yous and goodbyes are said.

Although he spent his working years in retail and the music industry, he ultimately found his passion because of Kate. A milliner for many years, having worked for television and stage, most recently for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, she's the one who taught John much of what he knows. "Much" isn't "all" because it turns out he'd been fond of this old-school fashion statement since he was young.

"Get the picture, John," she says. He obediently heads over to a shelf and plucks something from up high. It's an older frame with a black & white photo inside. He hands it to me, challenging, "Guess which one's me."

This is no "Where's Waldo" moment. The cluster of 10-year-olds is fairly unremarkable with one exception: the boy crouched in the center wearing a too-large fedora on his head. It's John's fifth grade class photo. The hat is his granddaddy's. He kept it, repairing it many times over, until the thing fell apart. He was hooked. And then he met Kate.

A demonstration ensues of the different pieces of equipment necessary to make a hat. Large blocks of wood in various shapes and sizes adorning the back wall each have a very specific purpose. Many are hard-to-find and very old, often needing refinishing. The ones for the ladies' hats are particularly complex as they require puzzle piece disassembling in order to remove a freshly molded hat from its oddly-shaped head, which only means more complicated reassembling (Kate points out John's put one back together wrong. He insists he hasn't. She just smiles and watches as he eventually realizes she was right).

I ask if it's true that anyone can wear a hat. "Oh yes," they both reply enthusiastically. "It just has to be the right hat." They demonstrate the proper way to measure a hat fit (chin to eye equals hat height) and add, laughing, "we've told people they can't buy certain hats because we don't want them making us look bad."

"Okay. Put me in a hat," I say. They both examine me, Kate with her chin tilted up and eyes angled down towards me from many inches above my head; John with his fingers to his chin. Then, as if struck by lightning, they both move at once. "Honey, where's that camel one with the veiling? Oh! And the red & white one." (I say "one" because of course they called the hats by their proper names and I forgot to write them down) Hustling around, they pull out hat boxes from underneath a counter (wood cabinets originally meant to house guns for an outdoor sporting goods store, fronted with black cushions and buttons) and from the back room.

The hats are exquisite. One is from a set of matching cloches designed for a group of bridesmaids. One is a broad sunhat with a floppy brim, made with a rainbow-striped mesh. Except, it turns out not to be rainbow mesh, but ribbons, layered and pressed before the mesh was molded into place. Another cloche has a spray of hand-twisted red and white straw flowers adorning it. As with the men's hats, I WANT THEM ALL.1

Throughout it all, Kate and John regale me with stories. There was the day when an elderly woman came in and asked if they were the owners. When they affirmed they were, she said, "Thank you for making the men of Bay View look good." There was the day when a gentleman came in to look around and called a little while later asking if he could bring something in. He returned carrying a cane with a carved rabbit head topping it. "I went home," the man said, "and saw this on my wall. It was my grandfather's, but it really belongs to you. Every Mad Hatter needs a Hare."

We talk about Laurain's novel—about the idea of a hat moving from person to person and if such a hat would have to be magical to change each person's life or would its unique expression of its owner's personality as displayed on a different wearer? Taking into account everything I've just learned about how much artistic energy goes into hat making, and about how much a person's personality comes out in a hat, when it's carefully selected and right for him or her, it seems to me that The President's Hat isn't so much a fairy tale after all.

Before I leave, carrying a box of hat making accessories for our display, John mentions they're having a rockabilly band play in the shop the next night and that they'll be hosting a hat-making demonstration on Gallery Night. Just last night, they hosted an event featuring local photographer Jessica Kaminski of The Refinery. Whisky-tasting and music-listening accompanied hat-buying as attendees got their photographs taken, vintage mugshot style.

See, the best businesses don't just sell a product. They give you an experience you can't get anywhere else.

Speaking of which, come have an experience you can't get anywhere else: Antoine Laurain will be at Boswell doing a bilingual reading from his new novel and talking about his affinity for collections of old things (like cufflinks), as well as the allure of 1980's Paris to the French, on Tuesday September 24th at 7pm. More on The President's Hat on the Boswell and Books blog.


1Rumor has it that Kate will be opening up a ladies hat shop in the future (I selfishly hope sooner rather than later), but in the meantime, though she is busy with many aspects of running a business and assisting with the hat-making for the Brass Rooster line, as well as repairs and custom hats for the gents, if you ask nicely enough, she just might make a hat for your gal-pal.