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Balvenie Craftsmen: Graham Thompson, Optimo Hats

September 25, 2013 5 min read

The Balvenie, the world's most handcrafted single malt Scotch whisky, partnered with Todd Snyder to curate its two-years-in-the-making Rare Craft Collection. The works of these craftsmen and women will go on display in various gallery-style events this fall. Below is the first in a series of profiles highlighting these artisans.

When Graham Thompson was 16 years-old he ventured over to Johnny’s Hat Shop on Chicago’s South Side, where he tapped the legendary Johnny Tyus to make his first hat: a brown fedora with a rust color ribbon. “I cherished that hat,” says Thompson, who stayed a customer of Johnny’s over the years and discovered on his first trip home after college that Tyus was retiring. “Basically nobody was going to take it over and we hammered out a deal that week for him to sell me his equipment, teach me how to make hats. I didn’t really have the money to pay for it but I told him I’d pay him over three years out of cash flow and I did that.” Thompson renamed the company Optimo Hats, and first creation, a grey fedora with a wide blue ribbon for his uncle, ended up in a museum as a tribute to classic Chicago gangster style. (His knack for capturing this genre was later immortalized on the silver screen by the stars of Michael Mann’s John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies.) Two decades on, Optimo is still crafting custom fedoras, trilbys and straw hats (made with vintage equipment and help from a select group of Ecuadorian artisans) for some of the most discerning customers in the world.

You’ve been doing this since you were quite young. What got you into hats at such a young age?
There’s not really a short answer. There was a bunch of things that led me into it. As a kid, I loved watching the old black and white film noir and gangster movies with Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Robert Mitchum. I remember watching those with my dad and just always thinking how cool those guys were in their hats. I’ve always been into the blues and rock and always thought it was cool when a rocker or one of the old jazz guys was wearing a great fedora. People who always looked good in hats today and back then you can tell they just like hats, it was part of their persona, it wasn’t a costume. They were real hat guys.

Did growing up in Chicago play a part?
Chicago has always been a really great hat town, everything from Al Capone to the music scene and certainly in the black community. That’s one place hats never really went out of style was the South Side of Chicago. I got my first hat made by Johnny Tyus, who ran this store by himself and I got to meet him and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever and I got to know him and would take trips down there when I was back in town from college. That’s the big thing that got me into hats as a business.

Graham Thompson in his element at Optimo Hats.

What do you think you would have done if you hadn’t met Johnny?
I was probably going to work for the Chicago Board of Trade. I had studied Japanese and Economics and I was on an exchange program in Japan and Hawaii. We sell a lot of straw out in Hawaii these days, and it’s a big part of our business. I very likely would have stayed in Japan and was considering going to work for the Sapporo brewery. I really like their beer and I don’t know what I would have been doing there, probably something in the financial arena. I literally just had gotten back and heard about Johnny’s situation, so I didn’t even have to consider going back to Japan, but we’re getting more and more customers out there.

What did you learn from Johnny?
His veteran customers had been wearing hats since their early teens — 40, 50, 60 years — and they knew good hats. I had to really prove myself, I had to make sure all the work we did was great. I had to learn quickly and I had to learn properly. There is no way they were going to take any crap product or service from me. One of the things I noticed almost instantly and one of the many questions I would always be asking my mentor Johnny: What makes this hat so great? The fact was that there were no hats being made, by any company in the world that were like and not even close to like, the hats that were made 50, 60 years ago. They were different and I have just slowly figured out how they were made and its been a combination of picking up tidbits of information from all over the world and different factories and also finding all kinds of obsolete tools and machinery.

How have you evolved the business?
We’ve very slowly over the last 20 years I’ve gotten more and more into custom hats. His business was more focused on the renovation side and then customers who were really really serious and wanted a custom made hat he would do that too. I’ve tried to continually refine and ramp up the quality in any way we can. I’m sort of obsessed with making the hats like they used to be. I’ve been going to Ecuador since I was a teenager. That was my first little business venture. I’d sell these straw hats on the side and Johnny would block those for me. The blocking and hats themselves were always better on the old ones. I have really worked closely with the merchants and weavers in Ecuador to get the product looking a lot more like it did 50, 60, 70 years ago. So I’ve brought old hats down, start with uniform, long, high-quality straw. I weave it evenly and then on one of my treasure hunts I found an amazing grouping of equipment in this old barn in France.

What do you look for in a great hat?
The short answer is that it should almost be evident. You should be able to pick it up and almost intuitively you should know:
FELT You want to look for felt that is very, very even and smooth. There shouldn’t be wrinkles to it. SHAPE It should hold a nice shape but it should feel natural. Hats should not feel gritty, the shape should not be synthetic and rigid. COLOR It should have a luxurious, mellow color. DETAILING It should look beautiful. The leather sweatband and the linings should look refined, It should look handmade, not homemade. Handmade doesn’t mean anything. Handmade can mean the biggest piece of shit you’ve ever seen, and it’s used so often as an excuse, but a properly handmade hat, I could go on forever.