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Hatmaker stays in Buffalo as Hollywood beckons

A guy in South Korea wants a hat just like Warren Beatty wears during one scene in Bonnie and Clyde. So he sent a DVD addressed to the "Custom Hatter," otherwise known as Gary White.

White pops in the DVD, though he clearly knows what he's looking for.

"It's coming up here. She says, 'Hey boy, what are you doin' there?'," he says, predicting the dialog.

Sure enough, the line blares out of the television, but White has already homed in on the hat.

"That's a felt hat. You can tell by the edging on it," he intones. "By the width of the brim and the height of the crown."

"Anyone can make a fedora"

This is how it usually works. From a movie scene, a picture, or even a crude description, White crafts gamblers, pork pies and godfathers.

"The other guys will say, 'We make a fedora.' Well, anyone can make a fedora," White says of his fellow tradesman. "[I say] make a riverboat gambler. Do a Le Mans. Do an old Robin Hood style. And then they look at you like you're crazy. If you're a hatmaker you should be able to do all that stuff."

To begin a hat, White grabs a floppy piece of felt made of animal fur and fits it over a head shaped wooden block. He straps that into a chrome machine that looks like an upside down octopus and cranks it slowly.

"This machine is probably all of 100 years old. I still manage to have it so I can be period accurate," White says.

His studio is like a working time capsule. There's not a computer in the place. He does have a web site, but to order you must call his telephone, send a letter, or drop in.

If you're on the fence once you arrive at the shop, there are plenty of endorsements to reassure you.

"Here you see some of the famous actors that I've worked with on display," White says, as he points to his de facto wallpaper.

Signed pictures and personal letters from Leonardo DiCaprio, Gene Hackman, and hundreds of other celebrities plaster the walls. White's hats have starred in Broadway musicals, TV shows and movies, from Dick Tracy to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Times change, hats don't

When White opened the shop 30 years ago, his hats were in style and the street was a commercial hub. Now it's the poorest neighborhood in Buffalo. The $500 or more White can charge for a hat doesn't translate into much walk-in business. And to most people, "hat" now means "baseball cap."

So instead of selling many new riverboat gamblers or homburgs to the neighborhood, White does repairs.

James Friday has a snap brim brown fedora from a catalog. But he needs it smaller, with a pink ribbon … and a feather.  He slips in for an unannounced visit and White welcomes him.

"Come in. I know you're anxious to get it," he says, pulling down the hat so he can explain every stitch.

"So it's five an one-eighths now. So you're just above five an one-eighths, because if you go bigger on this particular felt, you're going to split it in the back," he lectures.

Next comes the real test - the fitting.

"It looks good on you! Does it feel too tight?" White asks.

"No, feels good," Friday replies.

Staying put

Over the years, White's had plenty of offers to move his shop out of state. So far, loyalty to his childhood neighborhood has won out.

"I can't guarantee it. There's no guarantees," he says. "I may just decide that, 'Hey, you know what, it's time for me to be in a casino in Las Vegas.' But not right yet."

White knows time has mostly left his neighborhood - and his craft - behind. But he says he's proven an artisan can succeed these days by doing just about everything but reacting to change.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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