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Hats off to Smithbilt
From Royal Ascot to the Royal Wedding to starring roles on fashion week runways and Oscar Best Picture westerns, SmithBilt hats are part of an iconic tradition.
When it comes to style signatures, a hat is one of the most seductive, and perhaps the most challenging to pull off. Many a lover of fashion has fallen for the heady siren song of a new hat trend only to end up with a closet littered with picks that didn't quite sit or fit right gathering dust. For Brian Hanson, master hatter and co-owner of Smithbilt, home of the iconic white Western hat, the perfect match is everything.
"The same hat wouldn't look good on two different people. You want them to be happy with the hat so they'll wear it,” he explains about tailoring looks for his customers. "I can tell when they're not happy. A lot of people have talked me into making replica hats that I know won't look good on them. Invariably they come back and say, 'You were right.'"
This sharp eye for a fit and steely adherence to quality has drawn everyone from Oprah to George Bush, to PK Subban who drops by the shop when he's in town. And PK and the legendary Calgary hatmaker have more in common than a love for a good hat. While the hockey star has moved to a team south of the border, “He still gives to some organizations in Montreal,” says Brian approvingly of the commitment to giving back.
In Smithbilt's current collaboration with country legend Paul Brandt, a specially crafted black hat takes centre stage instead of the signature white hat - with proceeds of sales going towards Music Counts and the Ty Pozzobon Foundation, a nonprofit for rodeo concussion awareness and treatment. “I think it's a worthy cause. It's good to give back to the community especially when you're one of the founding businesses. I think we have a responsibility to give back to the city and charities.”
Brian's sense of community-building dovetails well with his motivation to keep the worthy art of hand-shaped hats alive. Like so many fine traditions, Smithbilt had fallen into decline, but he, in conjunction with a group of like-minded individuals, bought and revitalized the hat company. “It was a historical company, a unique part of Calgary's history. Smithbilt did all the hats for the opening ceremonies at the '88 Olympics.
Under Brian's steady hand, Smithbilt has gone from wholesaling hats, with slim to no margins on the more costly styles, to selling directly to people. Simons is one of the only outside retail locations, and there is a deeper bond the two companies share: “It was memorable when Peter Simons came in,” recalls Brian. “We had a lot of good talk, he had a custom hat. We talked about him buying a chuckwagon tarp at the Stampede, which he did again this year. He's really investing in the community, buying into the traditions.”
For Brian, whose first hat was a Smithbilt when he was a 6-year-old growing up on a ranch that has since been swallowed up by the growing city, hats are not only a tradition, they are headed into the future. “My favourite is the newest one that I made. It's like fashion, the style is always changing. I try to set the trend rather than follow one.”
A selection of Smithbilt hats is for sale at our store in Calgary's The CORE Shopping Centre in honour of the Stampede, which will take place from July 6 to 15, 2018.