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Mad hatters

Photos by Matt Haas

March 2015

As 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.

Today, 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.

Part retail 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 hat."

Both stores 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.

Though they 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.

A 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.

"We were 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 hat shop?’"

The passionate 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.

"Anyone 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."

Finding the 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.

"We just 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 by appointment.



This story ran in the March 2015 issue of: