Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Business Of Hats

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Graham Thompson, owner of Optimo Fine Hats in Beverly, has for years gone to Ecuador to buy toquilla straw for Panama hats and to Italy and Portugal for fancy felts for fedoras. Now the hatmaker wants to reverse at least some of that trade flow—by opening stores in London and Milan. A shop in downtown Chicago is also on the to-do list.

Thompson, 36, who grew up in Oak Brook, had hat dreams as far back as the 8th grade, idolizing men in hats from 1930s and ’40s movies. As a teen, he hung out with South Side master hatter Johnny Tyus and ended up buying Tyus’ business, paying him $75,000 from cash flow over three years.

Today, Optimo draws locals willing to spend $500 to $20,000 for custom-made hats, though it boasts celebrity clients, too, including bluesman Buddy Guy, comedian Bernie Mac, and actor Andy Garcia. Thompson also has made hats for movies, including Road to Perdition. He’s now working on Michael Mann’s Chicago gangster film, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. To supply his new stores, Thompson plans to jack up production to as many as 100 hats a week from 36 today. Revenue should hit $1 million in 2008, he adds, up from $700,000 in 2007 and $100,000 when he opened in 1994.

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