I had been aware of hat label Optimo for several years, but as it is based in Chicago and I’m in London, it was hard to find the excuse to visit. Fortunately, owner Graham Thompson was visiting New York when I was there, so I took the opportunity to meet him and try the wares. The label offers everything you might want from a craft manufacturer. There was a passionate beginning; a long gestation; success and popularity; and now a beautiful new Chicago factory that creates a range largely made up of classic fur-felt fedoras and trilbies (from $795), as well as a smaller collection of summer panamas.
Thompson was obsessed with hats from an early age, particularly those worn by Hollywood actors in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a regular at Johnny’s, one of Chicago’s best-known hat shops, when he was young. But the year Thompson returned home from college, he was shocked to find out that Johnny’s was closing. After a few conversations, Thompson changed his entire career plan, agreeing to buy the Johnny’s business and continue the legacy of hatmaking in the city. Today, after 25 years, not only is the business sustainable, but in 2013 Thompson was able to buy, and entirely restore, an old fire station to construct a new workshop.
Interestingly, when Thompson worked with Johnny’s while taking over the business, the shop then repaired others’ hats as well as making their own. This gave him a useful overview of the rest of the North American market and the confidence to pick materials and production methods that he believed would make the very best hat.
In terms of production, that included things like double blocking, or decatising, so that the blocking process is applied to every hat twice, in order to set the shape more precisely and give it more longevity. For materials, it meant using the very best beaver felt.
Optimo claims its final product is “The best hat made”. Who can say for certain, but it’s worth making an appointment by telephone, email or (from next month) online to find out – or, even better, visiting the Chicago workshop. It’s certainly on my bucket list.
Simon Crompton is a men’s style writer and consultant. He is the founder of the award-winning website Permanent Style and author of Le Snob Guide to Tailoring (Hardie Grant Books, £8.99) and The Finest Menswear in the World (Thames & Hudson, £24.95). To read more of his columns, click here.