Whether you're Erykah Badu or a world famous circus ringmaster, Brooklyn-based Marcus Malchijah is the right man to make you the perfect hat. For 17 years, Malchijah has been shifting and shaping roughly six to seven custom headwear designs on average per day from the back of his colourful milliner shop. Amidst boat hats and felt fedoras, Semhar Woldeyesus learns more about the milliner and his magic.
Semhar Woldeyesus: Milliners are like jewellers in many ways. Both crafting traditions are often handed down within families. Is that the case with you?
Marcus Malchijah: No, I pretty much taught myself. Seventeen years ago I lost a child. My son had died, and I was really going through a lot of different emotional phases… I came across someone who was making hats and it kind of became therapeutic… every year has been a process. I consider it a gift.
SW: So it's spiritual?
MM: At first it didn't come that easy. I mean, the hat making part was easy, but having to go through different emotions is what made it hard. A lot of folks (over the years) come and see my work and say, "Oh, you're so lucky. You're so blessed," but they don't know that it came from a place of suffering.
I was able to take something painful and transform it into beauty. I like the fact that I can dress someone and put a smile on their face, you know? [I can] put a hat on their head and help change their whole outlook.
SW: Do you remember the first hat you made?
MM: Yeah… I gave it to my grandmother… it was a natural straw hat. Khaki green. It had all these imperfections, but it gave me a great sense of accomplishment because even getting started was not easy.
SW: How do you convince someone to wear a hat?
MM: Well, a lot of my hats are not that traditional. And even if it's made using a traditional shape, I always like to use leather or a print that is more contemporary… it's like a work of art - wearable art. Hats are also a conversation.
If I meet someone who doesn't like wearing hats, I feel like I have to change that person. I've had customers who've never worn hats before, and what helps convince them is that it was a hat created by someone they can identify with. It wasn't just something bought off the shelf.
SW: What materials do you like to work with?
MM: One of my favourite materials is toyo. It's a refined straw [and] unlike nylon straw, which a lot of hats are made from, it's got backing. I also like to use chenille in the winter. It's very warm and has a nice weight to it and can be crushed back [into shape] easily. I also prefer velour felts because it's [more] conducive to your hair. A lot of wool felts take out [strands of] your hair. I also really like working with soft butter leathers.
Because I like using tough materials, if someone buys a hat from me, they can come back, bring my hat and you will still see that it can hold its shape. Many mass produced hats are paper-based; so when the hat gets wet, it doesn't hold up as well.
SW: How long does it take to make one hat?
MM: It depends on the material used… some hats require a braided stitch… felt hats have to be molded, shaped and dried. I may have to stretch the fabric over a particular block and let it take shape. Depending on the technique, it can take anywhere between 30 minutes to two days.
SW: What is it like to walk down the street and see someone wearing your creation?
MM: It's a very nice experience when I see people wear my work. If the person is dressed well and they are in a certain light, it has a whole different feel. A hat has its own personality… in Brooklyn, having your own sense of style [is] very important.
SW: A hat is an accessory. Do you agree or disagree?
MM: Well, I think millinery and fashion go hand-in-hand. If you go back to the 1800s and consider all the major fashion outlets, you were not considered fully dressed until you had a hat on. Every person you saw wore a hat. In certain cultures, the style of hat let's you know the status of the wearer. So I think hats are very important.
SW: The new Barclays Center in Brooklyn has forced many independent businesses like yours to shut down or move around. How have you been affected?
MM: When I first started, all of Fort Greene was very gritty. I opened my shop on DeKalb Avenue; none of the restaurants and bars were there [yet]. People who had knowledge of the centre [being built] tried to fight it over the years. When the ground broke [for the centre], that's when the rent really started to jump. My landlord and I never had a problem, but all of a sudden instead of US$4,000 per month, he wanted US$6,000 because that's what the surrounding restaurants were paying. And I was [on DeKalb Avenue] for a long time…. so at first my rent was US$1,200 [per month] and then US$2,000, and by that point it really started bearing heavily on me.
At first, I thought everybody around me was getting a raw deal. But the good Lord had a plan for me. I moved to Atlantic Avenue, and I realised that just like before, I was on the cusp of a new wave. Atlantic Avenue is a lot more central. It's like I am a spider in the middle of a web… it goes all the way into Queens. Also, since the zoning laws changed, different kinds of businesses can set up shop. There are a lot of empty spaces along Atlantic, so there are many opportunities for growth.
SW: Finish this sentence. When someone puts on my hat, they should feel…
Malchijah Hats, 942 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, 1(718)643-3269.
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