Craftsman Enjoys A Heady Career
Stuart Low, Staff Writer

 


1:33 p.m. With its dense jumble of antique hat racks and wooden molds for different head sizes, Dave Brown's shop, 77-year-old Brownie Brothers Cleaners, looks like a throwback to Charles Dickens' times.
Brown is designing fedoras for Pitt, Depp


(December 17, 2006) — Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp don't mind getting a little wardrobe assistance from a Henrietta tailor.

In fact, they're letting it go to their heads.

For their latest films, the movie stars have ordered custom-made hats from Dave Brown — a craftsman who bills himself as "Hatmaker to the Stars." He's creating a pecan-colored fedora for Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount Pictures, 2008), while Depp will sport a dark-green homburg when he plays a homicidal barber in Sweeney Todd (DreamWorks Studios, late 2007).

Although he hobnobs with the likes of Richard Gere and Paul Newman, Brown is hardly addicted to glamour.

You can usually find him in a cluttered workroom behind his family's 77-year-old business, Brownie Brothers Cleaners at 3054 West Henrietta Road.

With its dense jumble of antique hat racks and wooden molds for different head sizes, the shop looks like a throwback to Charles Dickens' times. Brown's materials might have been familiar to Victorian hat makers: waterproof felt from beavers and rabbits, English grosgrain ribbons for hatbands. Only the din of a rhythm-and-blues band on a boom box tells you that Brown is very much of his times.

Now 63 with a grizzled mustache and salt-and-pepper hair, he started off as an apprentice at Manhattan's famed Jaylord Hatters. His teacher was the well-known master hatter Steve Martin (no relation to the wild and crazy actor).

"He was a tough guy, but a good teacher," recalls Brown as he operates an old Singer sewing machine.

"I'd present him with my work every month and he'd tear it up."

After five years at Jaylord, Brown opened his own Rochester shop as a sideline to his dry-cleaning business.

But he didn't start seeing celebrity clientele until a local friend's secretary joined a California law firm.

"She became friends with 'Red' Stromwall, whose detective career was the inspiration for the 1996 film Mulholland Falls," says Brown.

"He's a sharp dresser and she put him onto me. He told me: 'When they make a movie about me, you'll make the hats.'"

To their amazement, Nick Nolte was cast in the role and Brown ended up making him 30 fedoras. (They took some abuse, since Nolte beats up a witness with the hat.)

Another of Brown's Hollywood contacts was costume designer Colleen Atwood, who used his hats in several major productions. He traveled to Los Angeles, Montreal and Toronto whenever actors needed on-the-spot fittings.

In 2001, Atwood called him to the Toronto set of Chicago, whose three stars all needed vintage headgear.

"I had to fit Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rene Zellweger," says Brown, who usually charges $340 per hat. "Gere came out of the costume room, walked right over to me and asked where I was from.

"'I knew it!'" he said. "He grew up in Syracuse and recognized my Rochester accent."

Brown recalls Zeta-Jones as "china-doll beautiful" and prefers not to discuss Zellweger's offstage personality.

But he has fond memories of Paul Newman and Tom Hanks' down-to-earth demeanor while shooting Road to Perdition (2002).

"They're nice guys, once you get past the Sumo wrestlers guarding them," he enthuses. "I went into Newman's trailer and we talked about his spaghetti sauce."

With Pitt and Depp in his immediate future, Brown has no plans for early retirement.

"I learn something with every hat I work on," he says. "And it's a thrill to see them in the movies."

SLOW@DemocratandChronicle.com