In Bed With Hat Doyenne Linda Pagan
“There is a science to it,” says Linda Pagan about wearing hats. She should know. The English-born, U.S.-raised (after stints in Spain and the Netherlands) hat expert has been wearing them since grade school. “It was part of my school uniform back in England, and I hated the hat at the time.” She’s since grown fonder of not just that hat (“I realize now it’s really well-made!”), but hats in general. And since 1995, she’s run The Hat Shop, a SoHo boutique that’s become a city institution and main sustainer of the city’s still-thriving millinery industry.
And what of the science? “We look at the width of the cheekbones, the length of the cheek to the chin,” she says. “Everybody can wear a hat but not everybody can wear every hat. Our job is to increase your confidence not make you self-conscious.”
We got in bed with her to hear all about the NYC hat industry, her incredible story, and her 10-year involvement with a game-changing charity in Kenya, The Thorn Tree Project.
How did you wind up in NYC?
We came because of my father’s job in New Jersey. I had a typical sort of New Jersey upbringing from 12 to 18, and then I went to university here at Drew University before working in the city for ten years as a reinsurance broker for Lloyds.
So big insurance firm to custom hat boutique…how did that transition happen?
At 31 I had a pre-midlife crisis, where I was wondering, “What am I doing with my life?” I was engaged to be married, but it wasn’t how I thought it would be. I had a very painful year of assessment where I was like I’m not happy with my job. I do love this guy but I’m not ready to get married. So I quit my job, I broke up my engagement and I went to bartending school, which is the best thing I ever did.
I got a job at the Temple Bar in 1990, which was a great bar. The ’80s in NYC were all about shots, and then Temple Bar comes and it’s all about looking like a hotel bar. It introduced cocktails again, the classic martini—stirred, by the way, never shaken (it “bruises” the gin). It felt like elegance had been reintroduced to the city. And for me it was fantastic because I had been stuck behind a desk for ten years, and now I was dealing with the public.
What about bartending did you love?
I always tell people to work in the service industry at some point in your life. You learn every skill that you need to be an entrepreneur. You learn teamwork and time management skills; you learn how to work fast and under pressure; and you learn how to deal with customers, which is really important. (And you always have money in your pocket and can do a similar job anywhere in the world…you could go get a job at Club Med!)
While bartending, I did an internship at Rolling Stone, I worked for a photographer. And I’d go to the movies or the museums. I was taking a class in “Life,” really.
So how did the transition to hats come along?
I actually took a career skills test at NYU where you’re fill in the questions, and it came back that I was not entrepreneurial and that I should join the army. I was like, “I like the uniforms but I don’t like the idea of shooting or being shot at!” But one day I was behind the bar and I realized nobody had ever asked me what do you love to do. I think it’s such a simple question to ask yourself. You have to do something that you love, so I made a list of of hobbies: travel, photography, reading, writing, going to the movies. I wrote down hats, too. And there it was!… literally on top of my head!
So already by then you were into hats again?
When I worked on Wall Street, I had to walk across Liberty Plaza which got the winds from the East River and the Hudson River and it was just so cold. I went into Woolworth’s and I got a $5 beret and I wore it with my suit. People would say “Great outfit,” and I realized that it was the beret, since I was wearing the same thing. You can wear the same black dress and when you change your hat, it changes your entire look.
And there at the bar you decided hats were your calling?
Yes, I thought “I’m going to open a hat shop.” In ’85, the baseball cap had come back into style, so by 1993 I thought there must be somebody who wants a nicer hat.
And you were right.
I discovered that there’s always somebody, there is always a segment in the society that continues to wear a hat. In the ’60s when the hats really declined, it was African-American women and conservative Jewish women. They had kept the hat making and hat wearing alive. And in the ’80s actually there was a whole movement into hats with the New Romantics. They were really getting dressed up and wearing wild hats.
I was terrified to open the shop though. I ended up keeping my bar job, working for another shop, taking classes at NYU on how to write a business plan and a class at FIT on how run a small shop. I did not take a class in hat making, I wasn’t interested in making hats.
And the classes, were they helpful?
Yes! You can get apps or programs that teach you how to write a business plan, but I really believe in taking a class because if you do you have a built in support system—you’re going to meet other people. I’m still in touch with two people from my class from the business plan class!
And for your store, where do the hats come from?
About 60 percent are under The Hat Shop NYC label, and then 40 percent are from other New York milliners. The materials come from overseas—the one I’m wearing now is Italian straw braid and then sewn by our straw sewer in Hudson, NY. The flowers in this hat come from a silk flower company on 37th Street in the Garment District. We can order two at time. If you go with a big producer overseas, you’ve got to order a thousand! The feathers are made by my friend, who learned how to make them cuttable in his home country Grenada. And then the hat boxes are made in Brooklyn. It’s a century-old company and employs 25 people. So for us, everything is local and it makes it more affordable. It means that our turnover is faster. For a department store, they manufacture everything overseas and put in their orders months in advance because it’s got to come by container ship.
How has the hat industry changed since you opened?
When I first opened, fall/winter was a much bigger season for the millinery world than spring/summer. You would get your felt hats in September and you would keep them until April. Now because of climate change, summer hats are much more important.
The price point here isn’t cheap. Who do you see as your main shoppers?
People go, “You must only have rich people shop here,” and I say to them, “No, we have hat people shop here.” This one young girl going to the Kentucky Derby, for example, only had $100. So I got her a little hat and I put a flower on it. It should have been $125, but I sold it to her for $100 and she was so grateful. Then, three years later, she came back and asked if I remembered her. She pointed to an $800 hat and said “I want that hat.” I told her it was too expensive and she responded that she’d been saving up $50 here, $50 there to purchase a hat. I burst into tears!
What’s one of your favorite memories from working here?
Once this guy came in and sat down and told my assistant he wanted four hats. As a general rule we only sell two hats per day to someone, since it’s a big purchase and we don’t want to deal with buyers remorse from hasty purchasers. It’s hard for small businesses to give money back. So anyway, I said no, but he was persistent. “I really want them,” he said. Another shopper came in off the street and shook his hand, so I thought he must be new to the neighborhood. His bill was $620 and he paid in hundred dollar bills. I gave him back $80 and he said to keep it, “Consider it a tip.” I told him we don’t work that way, but that I have a charity in Kenya where this would feed four kids for an entire year. “I’m in,” he said, so he put the money in our tin can.
And while he was still there I went to change two lightbulbs. He offered to help since I’m actually blind in my left eye. So he stood up, and he just kept going—he was so tall! “How tall are you?,” I asked. He said he was 6’8”, and he just grasped the bulbs and put them in without having to reach. “Anytime you need the lightbulb changed you just give me a call,” he said. He left, and I asked my assistant what was that guy’s name? She said Kevin. And I asked what his second name was. “Durant,” she said.
Wow! He can afford four hats. In terms of styles and changing fashions, how do you see your store playing a part?
Well, the fedora is always classic and then lately the high crown has been very big and we started that about four years ago. But we don’t consider ourselves part of the fashion business. I forget who said it, but there’s a phrase “fashion goes out of style but style never goes out of fashion.” We are in the style business.
How have you stayed ahead of the curve this whole time?
One, we have a great product. Every product that’s in here is made from the best materials.
Two, we are very knowledgeable. We measure everybody’s head, and we can look at your face, we can guide you to the right product, we know that there should be two fingers under the brim. You ask us any hat question, we have the answer.
Three, we’re very honest. If you came in looking for a hat to travel with, but you’re not a hat wearer, I will sell you a beret. You may fall in love with a bigger hat and you may become obsessed with it, right? I will not sell it to you. If you buy this, you know what’s going to happen. It’s going to sit in the box, and you will never return. My business is built on repeat customers. We’re lucky that we’re not lingerie…everybody sees your hat! What’s better than an advertising budget? The person in the right hat, and a person carrying a hat box. You can’t pay for that kind of attention.
The fourth thing is, we give great customer service. We’ll spend 25 minutes with somebody who just walked in off the street. We’ll go to the ends of the earth…within reason. I mean there are some people who are abusive of that, but we know when that is.
The fifth thing is, we really LOVE what we do. We want other people to enjoy it.
What’s next for the NYC hat industry?
It’s just increasing every year. People say, “Oh, you must hate the $5 dollar hat on the street or cheap hats from the chain stores and stuff.” I don’t. Everybody has to have an entry hat and not everybody can afford a $250 hat. I say all hats are good hats as long as you wear them. I started with a $5 beret and worked my way up.
Can you tell me about the charity you mentioned?
It’s called The Thorn Tree Project.
I’ve been traveling in Kenya for about 20 years with my friend from next door. One day a woman came in here and recognized some jewelry from a pretty rare area in Kenya and asked where I got it. When I told her about my travels all over the country, she said she needed my help with a project of hers. She was working on getting more Samburu children into school. The Samburu are a nomadic pastoralist tribe, and they move with their herds according to the seasons. It’s very hard to send the kids to the regional primary schools because they are far away. So she strategized to have preschools that moved with the herds and to help fund dormitories for the elementary schools. I’ve been involved with The Thorn Tree Project for 10 years, and am currently serving as interim Chairperson.
We don’t build the schools, that’s a great way to lose money (just ask Madonna or Oprah). We hire more teachers, provide books, uniforms, pens, pencils and came up with an effective tutorial program. We went from 52 kids in three schools to over 1500 kids in the elementary schools. We have 125 at high school and 20 kids at University. They are provided with scholarships as none have the means to afford high school. I urge everyone to get involved in anyway they can…from buying a bracelet to sponsoring a high school student! You get sooooo much out of it.
Staying with us? Book this National Hat Day Celebration special and enjoy an exclusive design session at the Hat Shop!