STYLE | The Dames of Paul's Hats
A feature on the hat-making women of SF's Richmond District
Paul’s Hat Works makes hats… real hats. Well-made, classically inspired, and stylishly designed hats. Hats from the finest materials (rabbit and beaver felt, or Ecuadorian straw) and locally made with a time-tested process. Actually, there is no Paul around here anymore. Olivia Griffin, Abbie Dwelle, Wendy Hawkins, and Kirsten Hove, four San Franciscan ladies, now reign as the finest gentlemen’s hat makers on the West Coast.
The four friends acquired the Richmond District shop after being invited to apprentice in 2009, becoming the fourth generation of owners. Paul’s doors were originally opened by Napoleon Marquez, the Peruvian immigrant who established City Hats in 1918. Napoleon’s grandson renamed the shop but kept the original flavor, and today the tools used by Napoleon are still used by the women keeping San Francisco classy.
The conformateur, a Charles Dickens–era invention, is used to fit the human head. The formillion allows construction to be customized to the client’s head. After the fitting, Paul’s uses the most basic and time-consuming tools: steam, water, and heat (cast irons). These tools press and mold the hats. Next, the drying process. The milliners (hat makers, technically speaking) at Paul’s use a sandbag press to surround the hat. While heat makes the material malleable, a sandbag press cools the hat while it rests on its wooden mold. Paul’s Hat Works avoided the Industrial Revolution. Machines, which damage materials and cut the hat’s longevity, are not welcome here. Glue is banned in the finishing process, where a pre-1940s cotton rayon ribbon is hand-stitched to add color. This process and attention to detail sets Paul’s apart. It is one of the few remaining shops in the U.S. using vintage tools and a vintage process to make, clean, and refurbish hats.
“It’s about tradition and making products that last. We don’t want you to throw your hats away after a year. We don’t want you to find your grandfather’s hat and be like, ‘I don’t want to wear it; it’s vintage.’ I want you to be able to wear it every day,” Dwelle explains.
And when women find their grandfathers’ hats, the ladies at Paul’s can style any look to add a hat. “We make men’s hats, sure. Women’s hats were originally oversized hair decorators. But these rules aren’t strict anymore. What was once strictly for men can be worn by women now,” Dwelle said, wearing a vintage fitted blouse and skirt and, of course, a bowler. Personality fit is more important than gender today.
Personality and personal style go hand in hand. Paul’s didn’t want to give stereotypical breakdowns of who wears a fedora, a bowler, a porkpie, an optimo (Al Capone was a fan), or a western. Instead, the focus is flattering a wearer’s face and posture and matching a hat for the right occasion. And all occasions can use a headpiece.
Finding the right hat is easy at Paul’s, even if you’re a novice. When President Obama was in town for a fundraising party, a loyal patron made sure the president left town wearing a Paul’s North Beach fedora. Paul’s styled the president’s hat to frame his handsome face and portray confidence, a trait associated with his title. The black trim went well with the formal suit and tie—and the personal style of the man standing next to a very fashionable first lady.
If you’re thinking of dressing up and adding some functioning fashion to your wardrobe, then stop by Paul’s Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 6128 Geary Blvd., and try something on. You deserve more than a beanie and a Giants cap.
Visit Pauls Hat Works 6128 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94121