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J.J. Hat Center and the hatter of New York

In 2016, photographer Andrea Lang visited a hatter and the oldest specialty store »J.J. Hat Center« in New York. In sisterMAG No. 61 she reports on her experiences and the traditional craft that continues to fascinate us all. In a 2020 exhibition, the photographer visually captured many other traditional trades in addition to the craft of hat making.

The hatter of New York

And the oldest specialist shop J.J. Hat Center in the city

You enter the shop and are transported into another time. The smells, the wood panelling of the shelves and old chandeliers that give dim light. A world that calms, in which careful hand movements are carried out, in which the old is preserved and in which people are convinced of what they are doing. The feeling of deceleration set in immediately when the photographer Andrea Lang entered the shop in 2016 to take the first picture for her long-term photo series. She was welcomed by a well-dressed man named Jose with a charming and, at the same time, mischievous smile. He gladly showed her the salesroom and the workshop.

Jose started working as a hatter in 1977-78. He doesn’t remember exactly. Since the 1970s, a lot has changed in this profession. There are only a few hat shops left in New York and fewer and fewer people who wear and appreciate hats. And yet there are trends, like short and wide brims and certain colours that are becoming more and more popular. Several hat styles are brought to the masses by TV series and movies. Caps enjoy great popularity since Peaky Blinders. The homburg, a tall felt men’s hat with a bent-up, framed brim and a centre snap in the crown, gained notoriety with Boardwalk Empire. And since the Frenchwoman Sarah Bernhardt fashionably played Princess Fédora Romanoff with a hat in the theatre, the fedora became world-famous and was preferably worn by representatives of the women’s movement. Thanks to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it’s preferred with a medium-wide brim now.

Jose started his career as a buyer of accessories for a small menswear chain. One of the divisions he was responsible for as buyer was headgear. A job in a headgear manufactory followed. »The rest is history!« Jose said and smiled.

Founded in 1911, J.J. Hat Center is the oldest hat shop in New York and a real institution. For over a hundred years, the hatters have been proud of excellent customer service and competent advice. Buying a hat should be an unforgettable experience for their customers where they find exactly the hat that suits their individual style. They can choose from more than 10,000 high-quality hats that are in stock at all times. It’s the biggest selection of headgear in New York City. Should you not have the pleasure of visiting the historically furnished building at 310 Fifth Ave in Manhattan, Jose and his colleagues also offer an online service and are available for advice.

What makes his job special are the people he meets at JJ Hat Center. »Hat wearers are mostly very eccentric. But the service I offer fulfils me!«

Jose loves working with hats as products. And he sees it as his task to take first-time customers by the hand, to lead them and to encourage them to wear hats.

Sometimes people enter who are unsure and dissatisfied and require a lot of time and patience. »On other days, people seem to know exactly what they want!« And so you never know who will come in and what the day will bring.

A few years ago, wholesalers came into the shop to talk to the owner, Aida, and to offer her products. During the meeting, one of the wholesalers made a remark that New York City needed a good hat shop. That was it for the business. »After that, we never ordered from them again!« Jose laughed.

In addition to fitting customised headgear, there are also some repair services that always come up. These include brushing and shaping, widening or narrowing, replacing the sweatband, flanging and flattening the brim and replacing the lining. Equally varied are the forms, like western, travel, crown style, newsboy caps and berets, and the different materials, like felt, fabric, fur, leather and straw. »Our hats are not only worn and put on display through the whole city but also worldwide. People come from all parts of the world, are advised by us and return to their home countries with their purchases. The caps are especially popular and are shown and recommended by their happy owners.«

When the pandemic hit New York City and the rest of the world in spring 2020, the shop had to close. For the small company, the situation was scary. Eventually, they got the permission to have one person in the shop to handle the online orders. This brought them through the summer months. When the shop was able to reopen in July, there were not many people in the city and the priorities had changed. Without their regular customers and the diligent staff, J.J. Hat Center could not have survived. And so everybody hopes that things get back to normal soon and that the shop will continue to leave a lasting impression and be a unique experience.

In her photographic long-term project »Old craftsmanship & traditional professions«, the Hamburg-based photographer Andrea Lang shows craftsmen, old and classic occupations, jobs with passion and profession. Simply staged black-and-white portraits in old style, inspired by August Sander. Unlike her advertising shoots with photo concept, these pictures are not prepared for long but created in reportage style without major staging.

»I was able to hear incredibly exciting stories, meet people who are enthusiastic about their work and gain great insights into workshops and working methods. One of them asked me what my motivation for this series was. It has always been important to me to tell a story with my photos. I see how much is forgotten, and I want to preserve a part of it.«

During her research, the photographer found out that the profession of carriage builder doesn’t exist in Germany anymore. »It’s just not worth it anymore«, she was told. In September 2020, Andrea Lang was able to realise the first photo exhibition on the project in an open greenhouse. Twenty-three portraits, presented in old iron window frames, moved in the wind and formed a bond with the idyllic surroundings and nature. The first step to remembering that high quality craftsmanship has to be paid for was completed. And maybe the first step to not letting an almost forgotten craft die out.


In sisterMAG No. 56, we already took a look at the craft of hat making and met hat maker Fiona Bennett in Berlin for an interview, which you can read here.