a young boy, John McLaughlin was rifling through a family closet when
he stumbled across a black velour fedora. A far cry from the colorful
baseball caps most boys were wearing at his age, the stylish and
sophisticated lid belonged to McLaughlin’s grandfather. Yet in the
moment he placed the hat atop his head, it ignited a lifelong passion
that was all his to claim.
McLaughlin is a master hatter — an unusual trade in a commercialized
world driven by the next craze. Along with his wife, Kate, a
consummate costume maker and master milliner herself, the duo run the
sister hat shops, The Brass Rooster and The Hen House, on South
Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View.
store, part museum workshop, the double storefront is an ode to the
history of hat making, as well as a treat to anyone searching to adorn
their pate in high style.
"A hat is
the last thing people put on, but it’s the first thing people
see," John explains. "We understand the soul of the
bleed the owner’s personalities: John’s side is Americana
masculine, while Kate’s side is a throwback to Art Deco. Each store
is outfitted with art and antiques, such as old steamer trunks,
chandeliers, Victorian mirrors, and of course, rows and rows of
colorful, captivating hats. A class photo on top of a piano shows John
as a 10-year-old sporting his grandfather’s fedora.
serve up bowlers, newsboys, fedoras and feather pads from other hat
retailers, a large portion of their business surrounds the hats
crafted by John and Kate in the store. It’s the fuel that runs their
business, they say, and it shows.
few years ago, the couple were freelancing — creating costumes and
hats — and gaining attention from not only theaters, but also from
cable television shows and celebrities (like Kid Rock) for their
handmade creations. While on location in Racine, Kate says she came
across an old hat shop — and had an epiphany.
sitting in the car a couple of weeks later — the best place to talk
to your spouse — and I said, ‘What do you think about opening a
hatter was all for it. The bank, however, "literally laughed at
us," John says. So, the couple spent two years scrimping and
saving before opening their first location.
with a load of cash and an idea can open a shop," Kate says.
"But we knew we had that ‘mad skill.’ (Handcrafting hats) was
something that we knew we could offer — the difference between us
and a retailer."
equipment to make the goods would prove to be difficult, however. With
manufacturing facilities taking over the hat-making industry, original
equipment was hard to come by.
But fate was in
the cards: A former resident of Detroit, Kate had been introduced to
Clarence Reynolds — a master hatter who’d spent decades working in
a basement workshop before taking over for his former employer. Over
the years, the couple looked to Reynolds as a mentor, and when he
retired after 65 years, he offered up his hat-making equipage.
It was an offer
they couldn’t refuse, a lot that included flanges, crown irons,
hatting boards, pouncing machines, steamers and other tools. Making
their hats on original equipment — some dating back to the late
1800s — brings the history of hat making into the 21st century. It’s
also what makes the stores so unique.
feel so lucky," Kate says. "Everyday when we sit at the
worktable it’s like a dream come true."
The Hen House
and The Brass Rooster offer full cleaning and repair services, custom
fittings, hat-making classes and dozens of hat styles, materials and
colors. They are open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., or