On the brief train ride from midtown Manhattan to Harlem's west side, I took note of my fellow passengers; three knit hats and two baseball caps. Not shockingly, there was not a fedora topped head in the car. However, as I strolled the five blocks from the station to my destination, I scrolled Tumblr, and took note of the contrary. This generation has, in recent years, experienced a resurgent interest in what is considered classic men's clothing, eschewing the one-size-too-slim designer trends of a decade ago or the wave of three-size-too-large everything of the late 1990s. The fedora, that final touch of gentility seems to be gaining popularity among the previously hesitant, due in no small part to links of the generation.
The unassuming facade of my destination, Flame Keepers Hat Club, would trick the casual passerby into believing what was on the other side of the wall was just as understated. Aside from muted wooden floors and pale grey brick walls, accented by a lone magenta wall, the shop is resplendent with fedoras in hues of burgundy and hunter green, flap caps in speckled tweeds and herringbone.
Walking into the two-month old shop on West 121st Street, I was greeted by its genial proprietor, Marc Williamson, himself a 22-year veteran of New York's JJ Hat Center. Williamson was steaming and brushing a new stock of hats to be soon displayed when I asked what's the response been to his new shop.
"It's all been going very well. I will not complain," said Williamson, who at this point had taken the hat I wore into the shop and gave it a brush and steam.
Flame Keepers owner, Marc Williamson, steams a fedora
Social media has played a significant role in the shop's promotion thus far. Before the Instgram snaps of clients, however, there was a trying, year-long process to find a good enough space for the shop. After a back and forth with building owners, Williamson settled on the location, which sits at the corner of Frederick Douglas Boulevard, among Harlem's major arteries. The area is experiencing what the New York Times described resurgence in development. Williamson, a lifelong New Yorker, by way of Woodside, Queens, felt a particular kinship in Harlem.
"It's a great sense of community here," noted Williamson as two locals entered the shop. The two customers, one in a tan Stetson, browsed around the shop, trying on varieties and chatting with the obliging owner about hats. With a necessary style still to come in stock, the gentlemen left, with one shouting from the door that he lives across the street and would return later.
"You see," said Williamson, regarding the serendipitous encounter. "We have those discussions about hats all the time." The 'We' Williamson refers to is not entirely the fedora-topped gentleman depicted in the old Apparel Arts illustrations, rather it's everyone from the twenty-something Brooklynite, just getting into his first hat to the octogenarian, lifelong Harlem resident who may have very well observed speeches by Malcolm X or recall the sermons of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
In that respect lies that idea, the concept, the core mission of Flame Keepers; continuity.
"We're passing the torch of good taste from one generation to the next, " said Williamson about the inspiration for the name of the shop.
"Good taste is a range of things; it's how your treat people. It's how you present yourself. That's what we're trying to do here."
For Williamson, taste transcends any garment, rather it's more abstract. It's spirit, a way of behaving and carrying yourself. Does a hat achieve that? Perhaps not solely, but it's a stylish beginning.
Beyond the abstract to the tangible. A hat just looks damned good. There is not a more appropriate way to dress one's head than a proper hat. A knit or baseball cap often looks juvenile when paired with business formal clothing, while a headless pedestrian complete with heavy coat and scarf looks forgetful and cold.
Some men may believe they're not the hat-wearing sort but, that must be due to not trying. Visit the shop and Williamson will make suggestions on color, crown shape and brim width, all to best complement the shape of the wearers face.
Flame Keepers Hat Club
273 West 12st Street, New York, NY 10027
Photos by Bevin Elias