Montague has been making budget-friendly custom hats for 21 years
When customers come to the Star of the West Hat Company they are surprised to find out how economical it can be to buy a custom-made hat versus one off the rack. Custom hat maker Brad Montague says he can make nearly any hat in any style a customer would want at a reasonable price. “I’ve been at the hat shop for 21 years now, and I’ve made everything from derbies, top hats, and fedoras to dress hats, western hats and old style hats. As long as it’s made out of felt, I can usually build it,” he said.
He even once made trophy hats for Peyton and Eli Manning, with their teams’ colors and logos. The hats listed all their accomplishments on the sweatbands.
Montague spent five years in the carpentry business before moving to Rapid City. S.D., in the mid 1990s to work in a western store shaping hats. After a couple years, the owner at the time of Star of the West Hat Company called Montague and offered him a job. “I have always felt like I was just at the right place at the right time when that opportunity came up,” he said. “When I first started, he showed me how to block a hat and iron them flat. I also learned more about cleaning and shaping them. When I would get ahead, I would watch what he was doing when he was building them. Then one Saturday he was gone, so I just went to work building and finishing hats.”
Montague is the third owner of Star of the West Hat Company — a business he is very proud to own. “When he hired me in 1999, it was with the idea of partnering with him or buying him out eventually. I was supposed to learn how to build hats. Within 30 days, he was busy enough selling real estate that I was on my own and in the store mostly by myself.”
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When Montague decided to buy the store, it took some time to find the right bank to back the loan. “The banks wanted to finance a new venture, not an existing one. It was hard for them to understand how important that rotation of customers is to this business. I had to explain to them that you might sell a customer a hat, and then you might not see them for another four years until they come in to get it cleaned. Starting a new business would have been tough, it was a lot easier buying one with existing clientele,” he said.
The clientele Montague has are very loyal, and are spread throughout the country. He builds hats for kids whose parents are buying their child their first hat, right on up to 90-year-old ranchers, and everyone in between. All the hats are custom, but Montague does carry about 50 hats he has made that are a mixture of colors, styles, quality, hat bands and bound edges. “They are all for sale, but they kind of work as a reference for customers. They can feel the different in quality and see the differences in the hat. They can look at different styles and mix or match these hats depending upon what they want in their own. Probably 70 to 75 percent of what I do is custom orders, but there are hats on hand that are for sale if someone needs one in a pinch,” he said.
“When people come in the store, quality is something I really try and educate them about so they understand what the X actually means rather than looking at what is stamped in the sweatband. The look of the hat, the coarseness, feel, and crispness to it, is what really determines what quality it is,” Montague said.
Through the years, the X factor has fallen off, so every hat maker has a different standard for what the X actually means. “I sell a 10X that is 50 percent beaver that will outlast a 20X factory-made hat,” he said. Most of his hats are a mixture of rabbit and beaver hair, with a 5X being 5 percent beaver hair, 7X is 20 percent, 10X is 50 percent, and a 20X is pure beaver hair. “The more beaver hair, the better quality the hat. “It has gotten to the point where more people look at the X, but they don’t have much knowledge about what a good feel and quality hat should look like,” he said.
The sky’s the limit in regards to options for custom hats. “If you are not positive what you want, bring a picture or describe a hat you’ve seen that you like. If someone is up in the air about what they want, they might have to use a little imagination. Some people will come in and try on a hat and like the brim shape, but not the crown, and then try on another and like the crown, but not the brim. My job is being able to picture what they want in my head and piecing it together. Designing a hat is a wide open process,” he said.
Although some customers come in to the store, Montague has taken a lot of orders over the phone. “The positive of that is people can text or email pictures, and when the hat is done, I can send them pictures so they can make any adjustments they need to,” he said.
The hats come to Montague as rough core felt bodies. “It is all one piece and has the crown in it and a somewhat flatter brim. The material and sides are rough. I use a wooden block to adjust the crown height to the size I want. I iron them flat, and then sand them down to the smoothness I want. The next steps are to cut the brim down and stiffen the hat,” he said.
The felt body surprises people when they see a beginning and an end product. It is rough and coarse to start, and smooth and fine when it is finished. “People always say to me, ‘You don’t actually just start with hair and build it?’ and I’m like, well it is still pretty rough,” he said laughing.
All of the shaping is done by hand. Montague doesn’t use any molds for creases. The sweatbands are all cut to size and stamped by hand. He uses a sewing machine to stitch the back of the sweat band and sew a bound edge on it.
Shaping the hat may be the hardest part of building it. “I grew up shaping my own hats, so I have made a lot of screw-ups on my own over the years. It’s like anything, the more you do something, the easier it is for you. It is just one of those things you practice and learn how to do over time. I have been doing it for 21 years, but I still have days where I can’t shape one for anything,” he said.
For more information about Star of the West Hat Company, visit his retail store in Rapid City at Haines Station Shopping Center off I-90, or on facebook. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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