#130: Steaming the Homburg

February 25th, 2013

A foot pedal blasts the steam on command.

It takes a while to realize it’s a foot pedal. At first it seems the steam’s just there when it needs to be, curling and whooshing around what in a few seconds will be an elegant beaver felt homburg.

“The kind of hats we make have basically become extinct,” hatmaker Graham Thompson says as he flicks the steam condensation off the hat with what looks like a paintbrush.

He flips the hat over in his hands a few times, giving it the expert peer. A few more brush strokes on his canvas and it gets the mental OK. I’m reminded of something he told me a few moments earlier.

“It’s a good investment,” he said. “You get one of our hats, you’ll have it your whole life.”

Optimo makes hats. Optimo makes Hats.

In their workshop on the far South Side, just north of a sketchy “School of Beauty” that looked like it had been carved out of a laundromat and a “Tax-itician” with a handwritten sign on butcher paper promising good IRS results, Optimo makes and sell men’s hats that cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Some of Optimo’s hats kept the classic names: trilby, homburg, bowler, top hat, stingy brim. Some are bathed in Chicagoana: The LaSalle, The Rush Street, The 47th Street, The Dearborn. Some go by the name of the wearer most might recognize: The Cagney, The Dunaway, The Mitchum, The John Lee Hooker.

They’re works of art for your head. No costume shop feltwork or Indiana Jones licensed spinoff these. The bowler turns you into a British lord, the porkpie to a South Side pool hustler.

“That’s one of my goals,” the hatmaker says. “To be an iconic Chicago product.”

Graham Thompson is a slim, fit ginger who says he’s 41 but looks a decade younger. He took over Johnny’s Hat Shop from his mentor Johnny Tyus in the early 1990s. He was young, he admits.

“It was going to be closing, sort of retiring right at the time,” Thompson says. “The timing was perfect.”

There’s a framed photo of Tyus on the wall. He’s working in the shop, working on a fedora while wearing a cabbie flatcap. He’s wearing what looks like a denim shirt and jeans. He’s got a workman’s nimble, thick fingers and slightly bulging belly, but it’s the smile that gets me, that elfin smile that seems more a function of his eyes than his lips.

Johnny was happy. Graham is happy now, making these amazing hats in Beverly.

“The South Side of Chicago is really where the hat culture never died,” Thompson says. “Hats meant something to them. They grew up with them. To me, it’s a real Chicago thing to wear a hat. It never went away, especially among our African-American clientele.”

Yes, Optimo now has a West Loop shop for the tourist and businessman crowd. Yes, the homburg undergoing the last steam is destined for a hat-wearer in California. Yes, people have sent their own hats from as far as Europe, Australia and Japan just to have them cleaned, blocked and renovated.

But the heart of Optimo has stayed in Beverly, on that little strip of Western just north of a sketchy beauty school and a “Tax-itician.”

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You are currently reading #130: Steaming the Homburg by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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