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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

You Can Take Your Hat Off To Him - Stephen Temkin Of Leon Drexler Hats - Toronto, Canada

I guess nothing is coincidental but the blog post below is of David Lee Meisenburg, a bow tie customer of Le Noeud Papillon who happened two weeks ago to pass on the details of an interesting hat maker named Stephen Temkin of Leon Drexler hats in Toronto, Canada. Stephen is a custom hat maker, sourcing exquisite felts and making hats to order, an art form, which for men at least, is very rare indeed these days. I have been very interested in his craft of recent, having just prepared an interview for an Australian legendary hat company, Akubra, a little over a month ago.

It is very fortunate that Stephen made time to answer some questions as he is currently behind schedule on orders due to a personal injury, which in a business like his, relying on his own two hands alone, can cripple your business. As a side note, it probably does need to be said, that supporting businesses like Leon Drexler is so important. When there are so few companies in the world that offer small scale, authentic production, well then, it is as the adage goes 'it is the duty of every wealthy man to give a job to the artisan'. When so much of the world is making the same same but different, men like Temkin are becoming such a rarefied commodity that they deserve greater exposure. Without further ado, here is Stephen Temkin of Leon Drexler in his own words:

Australian bushmen often use a generic word for a wide brimmed felt hat. They are referred to as an ‘Akubra’ and the word originates from the company that made them since the late 1800’s. If you could have one hat which was loved by all and sundry across Canada, what would it’s name be and could you describe what it’s style would be like and the materials you would use?

I don’t have a real answer to the question except to say that the beaver is a national symbol of Canada, so the material I would use, and do use, might be considered an act of treason. Canada, though small in population, is a very diverse nation that would rather see itself as a land of many hats, not one (wool hockey tuque excepted).

Can you tell us about your customers – is there a thread of commonality about them or are people who seek out a custom hat maker a certain type of person?

First, as you would expect, most of my customers are men, but I’ve also made fedoras for women. In terms of age, my customers have ranged from a teenage hipster who wanted the same style of hat worn by the members of his favourite band, to an octogenarian horse trainer who wanted a good, durable, wide-brimmed hat to wear while riding (but didn’t want a cowboy hat). There you also see the spectrum of why someone may want a hat; from something purely tied up with self-identity, to something decidedly functional. Between those two poles, I suppose my most “typical” customer is a middle-aged man who pays some attention to how he dresses, appreciates quality, and understands both the usefulness and fashionable aspects of wearing a hat. But I can’t say I’ve discerned any particular commonality beyond that.

Leon Drexler 'Budapester' in black

I noticed that you use ‘beaver’ felt and that you offer a few different weights – can you please tell us a little about how felt is made, why it is used in hats such as fedoras, why beaver and a little about some alternative fabrics that might be used in hat making? Can you, for example, make a fedora out of a cashmere? Can you cover a fedora in silk?

Felt is essentially the densely matted hair or fur of an animal. Some types of animal fibre mat more effectively than others. You get different results, both in terms of quality and character, depending on what kind of fibre or blend of fibres are used. Beaver fur has long been considered the finest material for making felt for hats. The felt it produces is very pliant yet structural, holds its shape exceedingly well, has great tensile strength relative to its light weight, is exceptionally durable, naturally repels water, provides warmth, is pleasingly soft to the touch and, assuming the hat is properly made, amenable to refurbishment.

Without going into the technical details, a “raw” felt hat body is created by forming the fine undercoat hairs of the animal into an initial, loosely matted cone, and then shrinking it with heat, moisture and manipulation causing the fibres to become more tightly interlocked and the material increasingly dense. The result is a strong and manipulable material, meaning it can then be blocked, pressed and molded into various shapes and styles.

Today most commercially available felt hats are made from wool or rabbit fur, wool being the inferior of the two. Occasionally one sees expensive felt hats that include some sort of “exotic” fibre content, including cashmere, but this is more about fashion than quality and sometimes a mere gimmick. Pure beaver is the long-established gold standard and the only type of felt I use.

The awkward process of trying to cover a fedora in silk is not the way one would go about forming a silk hat. Better to take good quality silk, fuse it to a stiffer interfacing, then cut and sew a pattern that forms a hat, much like a leather hat or the cheap fabric hats one sees kicking around only better. Alternatively, one can achieve a lustrous, satin type finish with felt. My “Venetian” finish is a satin finish, although I go for a less overt, semi-lustrous appearance.

Leon Drexler: A  'Londoner' with Venetian finish

In terms of construction, can you break down to us in words a simple explanation of how you might go about making a hat from measuring the customer to finished product?

Once it’s been determined what the customer wants and I have their head measurement, a sweatband is cut and sewn to that precise measurement. The appropriate sized hat block is then chosen that will best accommodate a well-fitted insertion of that sweatband. The felt is then blocked, a wet process that stretches the felt over the block. Various bits of tweaking may occur during the construction of the sweatband and blocking of the felt to ensure the best possible joining of the two.

While still on the block, after drying for a couple of days, the felt on the crown portion of the hat will be refined depending on the type of finish chosen for the hat. I offer three finishes and use various combinations of about eight different processes to achieve the desired result.

After the finished felt is removed from the block, the brim is pressed flat, finished in the same manner as the crown, and cut to the selected width.

The sweatband is then sewn into the base of the crown using a sewing machine designed specifically for that purpose.

Next, the dents and creases of the crown are shaped by hand and fixed with steam. However, for certain hats, the dents and creases are not fixed by steam, but simply applied “dry” and allowed to possess a more organic malleability.

Next, the brim is shaped—either pressed over a flange to form a typical snap-brim style of hat or, for curled brim hats, curled by hand using some antique curling shackles.

The hat is then trimmed, most of the time with grosgrain ribbon (some hats, the Rambler and Keeper for example, are trimmed with felt from the same hat body). A standard snap brim may be left raw, or is given a “galloon edge” of grosgrain using a brim binding sewing machine. The binding of a curled brim on a Leon Drexler hat, however, is much more labour intensive, much of it careful hand work to provide a beautifully tailored look with almost no visible stitching. After the brim is done, the band and bow are made and discreetly tacked to the crown by hand.

A pure silk satin lining is cut and sewn, and then basted (not glued) into the crown. My linings are individually tailored for each hat. For a more breathable crown—specifically intended to complement the lighter, “welterweight felt”—I also offer a lining made from a natural, un-dyed, open-weave linen.

Finally, the little bow at the back of the sweatband is tied and attached. These are typically made from inexpensive braided ribbon, but I use pure silk.

I read recently on another blog that the proliferation of cars and high backed chairs in cars meant that wide brimmed hats were rather clumsy for drivers which has meant that they have suffered a rather big decline over the last 50 years. I personally have found that wearing a fedora whilst driving can be cumbersome, is there a way to wear a fedora whilst driving and can you tell us on what occasions we should wear a fedora? For example, can you wear a fedora to the beach?

The notion that an entire generation of men worldwide would completely abandon the wearing of hats in just a few years due to some awkwardness while driving seems unlikely to me. I wear a hat in the car all the time without too much difficulty. If I do have a problem (wider brim), I simply take it off, throw it on the seat beside me or into the back, then put it back on when I reach my destination—hardly a zeitgeist altering inconvenience.

If the car had any impact, it is probably because in the 50s and 60s as the use of automobiles became increasingly common, more and more men were spending less and less time outdoors. Hats are, after all, outerwear, and these changes to our lifestyle made them easily expendable. Today, many men leave their home, go to work and return without being outdoors for more than a few seconds, if at all.

The tricorn and the powdered wig didn’t disappear due to inconvenience, but because of changes in culture and fashion, and I suspect the same is true for the fedora. By the 1960s, there had already been an inexorable decline toward increasing sartorial casualness going on for many decades. We also witnessed a new age of vanity regarding men’s hair. It’s important to note that women’s hats also suffered a great decline at the same time.

A man wears a hat outdoors to protect his head from the elements, and then removes it when he settles back indoors, much like his coat. Exactly which hat he chooses to wear is usually determined by the context of his wardrobe and the outdoor environment. A specific occasion may also influence what kind of hat he wears, particularly as it pertains to the degree of dressiness or casualness, but that too is a wardrobe related decision. And yes, by all means, wear a hat to the beach, but not a felt hat; a Panama is your best choice to protect your head from the summer sun.

Of your own range, I have been recommended the Budapester. Is this also your favourite? Can you tell is when we might be inclined to wear each of your models. The Burgunder, for example, looks rather like a plantation hat, is it intended to be used more in a rural environment?

Well, the Burgunder is like a plantation hat and, stylistically, has a rural connotation. How much these sorts of indicators matter today is hard to say, except to say not much to most people. The idea that a certain hat is worn in a specific context really relies upon the existence of shared conventions and expectations regarding dress, most of which don’t exist anymore, at least not in a strict sense. Still, I personally wouldn’t wear a Burgunder while strolling around downtown Toronto.

Leon Drexler 'Burgunder' in graphite with brim binding and crown ribbon in puddle.

I’ll wear a curled brim hat such as the Budapester, Londoner, St. Urbainer, or perhaps an un-pinched, bound-brim hat like the Stroller when I want to look a bit more “uptown.” For a more pragmatic appearance, say for a trip to the market, I really like the Keeper. The Rambler is a country hat, and a bit of a fashion statement these days, but falls nicely into place with a tweed jacket. The hat I probably reach for most often is the Forager because it is just such a useful, versatile, everyday fedora that occupies the neutral zone between dressy and casual. That territory would also include hats like the Gaffer, Handicapper, Scribbler, or perhaps the Autobahner.

Leon Drexler 'Rambler' in mustard
Can you tell us a little about your own style and how you like to pair your own hats with your clothes?

First, let me say that I consider quality to be the foundation of style, meaning it all begins with the textile. Well-made, functional, seasonally appropriate, durable fabrics composed of natural fibers are what matter most to me.

That said, I suppose I look dressed up compared to most men on the street these days with the exception of men in business suits. If I ever try to leave the house in a tank top, cargo capris, baseball cap and flip-flops, my wife has been instructed to shoot me as an act of mercy, for I have obviously lost my mind.

When I’m out and about, I am most often wearing a seasonally-appropriate odd jacket of some sort, paired with a proper cotton shirt. All of my jackets are custom made, as are my shirts which are usually a solid colour or only subtly patterned. I don’t normally wear a tie unless the occasion demands, and although I actually appreciate the look of a pocket square, I don’t ever wear one (two shortcomings that obviously need to be addressed). Trousers tend to be casual but never so casual as blue jeans or, horror of horrors, cargo pants. I never wear shorts. Jean-cut, cotton cavalry twill pants in grey, brown or navy from Loro Piana are my casual staple, although classic dress-cut wool trousers seem to be infiltrating to a greater degree. So I guess you could say my everyday wardrobe is quite simple, discreet, certainly conservative by contemporary standards and, although I shudder to use the term, casually elegant.

I resist conspicuity yet, ironically, I am surely more conspicuous than most men on the street these days. That is no doubt due, in part, to the fact that I am always wearing a dress hat of some sort.

I haven’t left the house without a hat on my head for over 20 years. This began long before the idea of making hats ever occurred to me. Hats are just so sensible. The hat I choose to wear on any given outing will usually depend on the jacket (or overcoat) that I’m wearing, the weather, my destination and occasionally just my mood. But I’m not always terribly specific about it. Often I flop a hat onto my head before I go out, take a glance in the hall mirror and decide if it feels right. If not, I’ll try something else. Generally, I avoid selecting a hat that matches the colour of my jacket or coat as this can look overly contrived. But I do find it can be pleasing when the colour of the hat, or the hat’s ribbon, ties into something else that I’m wearing such as a scarf or gloves.

Leon Drexler: Forager
Are you working on anything exciting at the moment that you would like to share with our readers? A custom piece? A new hat design?

I’ve always got some new model idea floating around in my head—the problem is finding the time to work on the prototype which may require the making of two or three hats—not a terrible burden, but when I have orders to fill, it’s hard to devote studio time to pure design. 

One thing I have on the drawing board is a formal evening dress hat, the ultimate hat for a modern black tie event. It is essentially a black Homburg style hat (centre crease, no pinch) but with two references to the formal top hat—a lustrous finish and a tight, sleek, flattened curl on the brim, properly bound in black, the sort of curl one never sees these days. The interior will feature a pleated silk lining and the crown ribbon will have some sort of signature treatment that suits the hat’s formality. I certainly wouldn’t anticipate too many orders for this hat, but it’s one I feel should exist in the repertoire for those men who really like to do it up right.

Leon Drexler 'Stroller'  with galloon edge in silk biscuit and black icecream ribbon

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