Putting the hat back on top!

Putting the hat back on top!

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Percy Stith wears many hats — literally.

A black wool fedora embellished with shards of crystal, a wide-brimmed khaki cap wrapped with ribbon and garnished with a pin that reads “New Mexico Style,” a dark sombrero ornamented with beading and a turkey feather, a beaver skin cowboy hat with braided leather wrapped around the brim — these are just some of the handmade hats that sit atop wooden chests, hang from hooks and are on display at Stith’s newly opened shop.

But upon entering, any visitor will notice that The Stith Collection is so much more than a store. Its goal: to “bring back the hat.”

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Stith hopes to revitalize an accessory that once was a fundamental piece of everyday attire by selling one-of-a-kind creations, repairing and restoring old hats, offering in-person workshop classes — later on, with iPad video courses — and eventually opening workshops around the country.

“If you look at old photos, everyone was wearing hats,” Stith said, adding that historically there were thousands of hat-makers around the country and that in 1955 “there was even a union” — the United Hatters of North America. “It was this huge thing. It’s nice to bring something back that was such a huge part of our culture.”

Before cars, Stith said that people walked everywhere, and hats were a way to protect themselves from the elements. In Santa Fe, where the sun is constant and tourist attractions and local hot spots are within walking distance, he believes hats are not only fashionable, they’re practical.

“The sun is very intense here, and we have so many sunny days that it makes sense to keep your skin protected. The style here, too — it just suits the culture,” he said.

For months, Stith has spent his days molding a variety of hats, cutting slits in leather belts to embellish them with charms, and stripping vintage fabrics to wrap around the brims — all to prepare for the soft opening of his shop last week and to “start somewhere,” working toward his bigger goals.

But in the midst of his business dreams, the entrepreneur has had to manage his time wisely.

Stith once worked for big-name fashion brands like Sean John in New York City and ran a men’s clothing business from Boston. He wears many hats besides those of his startup business. Stith said he skis professionally for the Freeride World Tour, works seasonally as a river guide for Santa Fe Rafting Co., restores hats and works part time as a commercial real estate broker.

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His sense of curiosity and desire to “acquire as many skills as possible” is why his business “isn’t necessarily about becoming the best hat maker,” he said. He points to California’s Nick Fouquet and Santa Fe’s Kevin (and now Scott) O’Farrell as prestigious examples. Instead, it’s about bringing a creative, hands-on craft to the masses, constantly brainstorming new ideas to help the industry evolve.

For Stith, technology — specifically 3D scanning and printing — will play a huge role in the hat revolution.

“[3D scanning and printing] makes it so the hat will fit amazing, and it will allow customization,” he said. “You can make any hat you desire. You can print the exact block, the exact shape. It will fit to your head perfectly.”

He said he plans to install 3D technology in his Santa Fe shop soon and has his eyes on Denver and Los Angeles as next setup locations.

Stith made his first hat 12 years ago while living in New York, inspired by his first wife, who worked as a milliner. Yet it wasn’t until two years ago — four years after moving to New Mexico — that he was reintroduced to the craft during a visit to O’Farrell’s Hat Shop. Six months ago, after selling out all the hats he had made for his friend Bobby Beals’ CRFT & CULTR holiday pop-up, he began considering the hobby as a career.

“I always enjoyed working with my hands and fashion. I always loved hats. … So it kind of made sense,” he said. “I found enjoyment in making things for people.”

The hat-making process involves ordering an unshaped hat body — usually wool, but “the finest” is generally beaver skin combined with other materials. He steams the material until it’s hot enough to mold, shapes it to a block of choice, uses a stiffener to harden the hat, then cuts the edges and reshapes the hat as needed and decorates the brim.

Stith picked up a colorful Mexican blanket he said dates to the 1920s, running his fingers over its frayed edges. “Most people wouldn’t think to cut this up,” he said. “But I see 20 to 30 different hat bands here.”

Like the blanket, most decorative supplies Stith uses are things he finds in leather shops and vintage stores around town. He said he’s most excited about teaching others to get involved in the creative process. After all, the business isn’t just about selling hats he’s already made — he wants to inspire people to make their own.

And the movement starts in Santa Fe.

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“People here are so creative,” Stith said, adding that anyone, anywhere can be a hat maker. “Plus we have so many tourists that it’s just a fun thing to do.”

Once the workshops have gained enough traction locally, Stith hopes to bring the idea to a larger scale, implementing “mini factories” in big cities around the country. He envisions take-home tool kits and in-store how-to videos changing the way hats are made, sold and worn.

While he feels certain that some hat makers will be put off by his idea, he believes everyone will benefit from these changes and that hat making around the world will “grow exponentially.”

Stith said he can’t wait to see people wearing hats again, but more importantly, he’s thrilled to witness others making hats.

“It’s another way for them to express themselves,” he said. “You can then wear it out into the world.”

If you go
What: The Stith Collection
When: Open by appointment only. Regular hours likely will begin in July.
Where: 638 Old Santa Fe Trail