Section: Rochester Living
Trader in a lost
dressers and movie stars tip their custom hats to
"Here, feel this," Dave Brown says,
holding out a clear plastic bag partly filled with
American beaver fur.
It's silky, softer than a cotton ball.
Brown smiles knowingly. This is the good
stuff. Dense yet lightweight and, once felted into
a hat, the most water-repellent material made by
man. He keeps it confined to the bag because
otherwise "it gets in your nose and gives you the
Using traditional tools - some more than
150 years old - and methods that go back three
centuries, Brown incorporates the fur into
distinctive fedoras and Western hats that have
been worn by some of country's leading actors,
sports figures and singers.
The Henrietta man's toppers were featured
in three Oscar-nominated films last year: Road to
Perdition, Catch Me If You Can and the winner,
Chicago, for which he made 64 hats. His hats are
onscreen in Lemony Snicket's A Series of
Unfortunate Events and The Aviator.
He turned down a job to create "superfly"
hats in outlandish colors for last spring's
Starsky & Hutch movie, however.
"I wasn't going to do that. I wasn't going
to bastardize my hats."
Doing dramas like The Aviator is one thing.
Farcical action films are quite another.
"You can just tell his stuff is really
high-end. People notice right off the bat," says
Vincent Moyer, 43. The lawyer from Greece, who
became a client after spotting his neighbor in a Dave Brown original last year at a
Christmas party, now owns three of his own. "You
cannot go back to what you were wearing before."
The hats he bought previously from
Kaufmann's "have been relegated to snowman duty."
Now 61, Brown spends his afternoons in a
back room at Brownie Brothers Cleaners on West
Henrietta Road, his family's business since 1929.
He started working there at 11, earning 6-ounce
bottles of Coke for fitting paper onto hangers.
Working his way up to tailor, he also learned how
to clean and block - or shape - hats. The
difficult ones, the ones that came in with ribbon
and other ornate details, were sent to a reputable
hatter who worked out of his home in Rochester.
When that gentleman died, Brownie Brothers
Cleaners bought his equipment.
"And I found out how much I didn't know,"
recalls Brown, who by then was in his late 20s and
traveling regularly to New York City for supplies.
He hit it off with an elderly hatmaker
named Steve Martin on one of his trips, and began
an apprenticeship that lasted five years. Martin
was a perfectionist who required Brown to
duplicate his creations. Brown would return home
to Henrietta to do the work, then head back to
Manhattan for a lengthy critique from Martin, who
pointed out the problems but never guided Brown
through the repairs.
"He had patience, pride," Brown says. "He
was a good master. He was from the old school. He
taught me if your name's in the hat, you've got to
be proud of it."
Brown's name is embossed in gold leaf on
the leather sweatband and printed in the liner of
every hat, which can take up to a week to make.
The owner's name is there as well - engraved in
gold leaf on the sweatband with any custom order.
All that attention comes at a cost -
between $240 and $555 for fedoras and between $350
and $1,200 for Western styles. Ladies' hats are
custom only and average $300.
Moyer declines to specify how much his hats
cost, except to say, "They were quite expensive
but worth every penny."
Brown got his break in show business after
Nick Nolte spotted one of Brown's fedoras while
researching the 1950s-era crime thriller
Mulholland Falls. Brown since has been affiliated
with more than 15 major motion pictures.
"Dave Brown is my go-to guy for
hats," says costume designer Colleen Atwood, who
won an Oscar for achievement in costume design for
Chicago. She has tapped Brown for more than a
decade, most recently for Memoirs of a Geisha, to
be released late next year. "His knowledge and
love of the hat is reflected in the special care
he takes with every hat that he makes, whether it
is for Richard Gere or someone he has never heard
On a recent tour of his workshop, Brown
proudly shows off his 3115 Singer sewing machine
(the one his parents used), his extensive
collection of antique phlanges (for brim size) and
wooden blocks (for height and angle), and some
tools he inherited from Martin.
"I'm probably the youngest thing in here,
except my iron," he says. "And my glue gun."
Old tools fall apart. A little glue here
and there does the trick.
He works alone, without an apprentice.
"They want to learn in a week what it took me five
years to learn," he complains of his prospects. As
for his three sons learning the trade, "none of
them can work with their father."
For Brown, a good hat is no minor
accessory. It can transform your image - even if
only in your own mind.
"This 5-foot-2, 320-pound guy wanted me to
make him look like Harrison Ford," says Brown,
recalling a request he received when Raiders of
the Lost Ark was on movie screens. "In his mind,
he was Harrison Ford. That's the point I try to
get across. I tell my customers, don't buy a new
wardrobe. Come and see me and buy a hat."
With his name in gold on every hat, Dave
Brown is a stickler for quality. His methods
and the tools he uses date back centuries.
ANNETTE LEIN staff photographer
Tom Hanks, left, in Road to Perdition and
Richard Gere in Chicago achieved authentic looks
by wearing Dave Brown hats.
Twentieth Century Fox
Wooden phlanges, above, form hat brims, and
a sizing tool helps ensure a proper fit. The tools
date back more than 100 years.
ANNETTE LEIN staff photographer
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