December 27, 2004
Section: Rochester Living
Edition: Metro
Page: 1C, 3C

Trader in a lost art
Robin L. Flanigan
Staff
DC=Metro

Snappy dressers and movie stars tip their custom hats to Henrietta's Dave Brown
Robin L. Flanigan

Staff writer

"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 snizzles."

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 of."

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."

RFLANIGA@DemocratandChronicle.com

PHOTO CAPTION

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

PHOTO CAPTION

Tom Hanks, left, in Road to Perdition and Richard Gere in Chicago achieved authentic looks by wearing Dave Brown hats.

Twentieth Century Fox

Miramax

PHOTO CAPTION

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