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Trent Johnson greets a guest at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, an hour before his store opens, and he is wearing — gasp — a ballcap.
He is also wearing fashionably ripped jeans, although the fancy word is “distressed,” and has a general hipness about him that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a guy who made his name making cowboy hats.
The ballcap is a little out of character. He simply hasn’t had a moment to put on his hat yet because today, like every day, he’s “running ragged.” But the rest of the outfit isn’t — not really anyway. This is who Johnson is today. It’s what he is a good portion of the time. Glance around his store and you’ll know he’s telling the truth.
Greeley Hat Works is Johnson’s business, one of the more famous ones in Greeley, and while it is a working place — there’s dust on the floor, and employees wear casual or working clothes, like hard pants and an apron, not retail business suits — it’s not a saloon. There are neon signs and paintings by Armando Silva, a hip Latino artist from Greeley, and a healthy amount of sass. There are shirts for sale that say “Howdy my ass” and a drawing of a jackalope with the words “I want to believe” printed in the middle and a huge sign hanging just above eye contact when you walk in that says “Cowboy Shit.”
Yes, his childhood love for hats inspired Johnson to become a hat-maker, which is part of the lore that surrounds him, but he grew up a skateboarder and skier, and his personality is a reflection of his past as well as his present.
“I’m a chameleon,” Johnson said, and so is his business.
LEFT: Greeley Hat Works create a variety of hats for uses ranging from ranching to fashion. RIGHT: Johnson serves a regular customer of over 10 years at the shop. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
TOP: Greeley Hat Works create a variety of hats for uses ranging from ranching to fashion. BOTTOM: Johnson serves a regular customer of over 10 years at the shop. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
This means Johnson can be as country as when it wasn’t cool. When he attended the 100th anniversary of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in February 1998, a turning point in his business, he didn’t wear ripped jeans. Johnson served on the Greeley Stampede committee. Greeley Hat Works made hats for “Yellowstone” TV show characters as cowboy as the Old West, and one for George W. Bush when he was the president from Texas, and they continue to make hats for the working ranchers who still roam Weld County.
But then he points to a hat on a model on a door-sized poster and says he designed it. The hat — look at her head, he jokes, not at the rest of her — has nothing to do with being a cowboy. He wants the hat to fit the person, and he doesn’t care if that person is a socialite, a gay man or a rancher from Nebraska. He doesn’t want a hat to be a costume, something you wear once to the Kentucky Derby or the Cattle Baron’s Ball in Dallas. He wants it to be your lifestyle. Any lifestyle, he said, can include Western wear, his preferred term for what he does.
“I think everyone looks good in a hat,” Johnson said, “and my mortgage is bipartisan.”
The hat life
Johnson likes to say he didn’t choose the hat life, it chose him, which sounds as practiced as a cowboy’s lasso. It’s true that Johnson has a collection of these phrases, like a ballplayer’s clichés or a movie star on a press tour, and that’s because as the celebrity hat-maker to the stars, he’s been interviewed a lot. But Johnson’s speech usually isn’t scripted. He’s too honest, even raw, for that BS.
He really did have a collection of hats (and caps) when he was a kid, as souvenirs from Epcot Center and Morocco (a fez) and London (a bobby helmet). This inspired him to start an apprenticeship with Susie Orr in 1993.
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Orr had purchased the shop eight years before, closed the storefront and moved the business to her family ranch in Greeley.
The internship was hardcore, Johnson said. He had to first learn how to wash hats, then shape them and crease them, and many times when he was finished, she would make him blow it out and do it again.
“Even though it was only Susie,” he said, “I had to start at the bottom.”
After two years, he graduated and persuaded Orr to re-open a shop in downtown Greeley. The store’s website likes to say that “very few things” have changed about it since it was established in 1909, and indeed, when Johnson bought the business from Orr in 1996, he restored the Greeley Hat Works name, to uphold the legacy.
But Johnson did change everything except the way he makes hats.
In the past 20 years, the business has grown from producing 60 hats a year to 4,500. His breakthrough came in 1998, when the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association commissioned 100 all-beaver hats for its 100th anniversary. He later made a hat for Bush for the association’s meeting in Denver, and Bush then wanted another for his second inauguration, which Johnson presented to him in the Oval Office.
Since then, he’s made hats for dozens of A-listers, such as Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Todd Helton, Lady Gaga, Miranda Lambert and Jimmy Fallon. Word gets around, Johnson said, and they seem to appreciate the way he deals with them.
“I treat them like a customer,” Johnson said, “and not a celebrity.”
That gives him credibility, and if you want the hat the “Yellowstone” actors wear, he can make that for you. But he prefers it if you sit in a chair, get sized and answer questions about your plans for the hat, what you like, what color you want, that sort of thing. It’s expensive — places that call a fitting and a custom creation “an experience,” as Johnson does, usually are — and cheaper alternatives exist, including the stock hats scattered about his store that he can fit to your head.
“That’s cool for the press kit,” Johnson said of the celebrities. “But I make my living on people who use the product.”
Any major machinery made after 1950 doesn’t really exist in Greeley Hat Works. He would sound like a cranky old man talking about how they did it back then, but Johnson is 51, barely old enough to be a curmudgeon. He just doesn’t seem to trust anything built after he was born.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates this like his fitting tool, a French device invented in 1843 called a conformateur. It’s a metal device with pins on the outside that move to hug a customer’s unique skull and shape. The device creates a paper pattern once Johnson locks it into place.
It looks a little spooky, but there’s no pain. It’s “technical with no technology,” Johnson said. He loves it so much he keeps a few scattered around the country in places that sell his hats.
“I have yet to find anything better or as precise,” Johnson said.
You can buy a $1,500 hat off the rack, but his are 10 times better, and not a whole gosh darn lot more.
— Jim Docheff, who owns Blue Sky Dairy near Mead
He even keeps handwritten records of sizes of every customer. It would be a job, he said, to import them all into a computer.
“Even if they were downloaded,” he said, “printing it out may not be as accurate.”
New equipment is faster, he said, but it’s not better. He prefers to hire more people instead of investing in a machine that can crank out more hats per week. He also still prefers to make hats by hand, as he did in Orr’s barn, and that’s how he trains his workers.
“Those hands are connected to real humans who touch, feel and see what needs to be done to the raw material to make it the best it can be,” Johnson said.
That’s why the best niche clothing, such as boots, suits and, yes, hats, tend to be handmade, said Tom Hirt, a hat-maker out of Penrose. Like Johnson, Hirt sells hats to the stars. He made the hats for the movie “Tombstone” and has a Val Kilmer collection based on his Doc Holliday performance. He also has plans to work with Sam Elliott to offer signed hats from “Conagher,” a 1991 TV movie about — get this — a “tough cowboy who crosses paths with a lonely woman living in the middle of nowhere.”
“There has to be an artistic pride in what they do,” Hirt said. “It’s so superior to an off-the-rack hat.”
Hirt doesn’t know Johnson well, but he knows Orr and said she had a terrific reputation as a hat-maker.
Hirt spends much of his time teaching others how to make custom hats in weeklong workshops all over the West like one scheduled June 12-16 at Trinidad State College.
“I show people they don’t need to have $50,000 in equipment to build a hat,” Hirt said. “They won’t go into business for themselves using these tools, but they can make a hat, and it’s quite rewarding.”
LEFT: Johnson shapes an hat by hand at the shop, where antique French tools are used to create hats for contemporary clients. RIGHT: Framed photos of President George W. Bush, who wore a hat made by Johnson to his second inauguration, hang at Greeley Hat Works. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
TOP: Johnson shapes an hat by hand at the shop, where antique French tools are used to create hats for contemporary clients. BOTTOM: Framed photos of President George W. Bush, who wore a hat made by Johnson to his second inauguration, hang at Greeley Hat Works. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
In fact, it’s quite likely they won’t even open a small Etsy shop. Hirt said he’s taught more than 700 people in the past few years, and a half-dozen, at most, now make hats for a living. It’s a craft, not a job: Hat making by hand is a rare trade, but Hirt and Johnson make good livings from it. Hirt can’t say who does it better, but that, he said, is the beauty of hat making.
“Everyone has things they do their way, and that’s what makes us unique,” he said. “Everyone’s hat will have a little nuance about it. Your hat is your hat.”
Hirt is a one-man show and makes four hats a week. It’s possible his only similarity with Johnson is their love for beaver fur. Beaver is dense and naturally waterproof. Johnson even has a chart comparing beaver fur to other animals for his customers: Johnson will use other material — beaver is expensive after all — but the chart makes it obvious what he recommends.
Heavy is the head
That extra quality makes enough of a difference that Johnson has many repeat, lifelong customers such as Jim Docheff, who owns Blue Sky Dairy near Mead. He first went to Orr’s hat business and became a fan of Johnson when he was just an intern.
“You put one on,” Docheff said, “and it’s a hat you can wear forever.”
Docheff has seven or eight now, in different colors, a couple he wears around the dairy and a couple others he saves for dressy events. His son, Chisum, is a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association steer wrestler and an ambassador for Greeley Hat Works.
“You can buy a $1,500 hat off the rack,” Docheff said, “but his are 10 times better, and not a whole gosh darn lot more.” (Prices run from several hundred for an off-the-rack model to several thousand for a custom-made hat, depending on the design, the fur and how blinged up it is.)
If Johnson has to buy anything new, he has it built in the old style, but he scours the web for old parts so he doesn’t have to. They’re hard to find, so he keeps a “boneyard.” Near his desk is a broken conformateur he’s partially stripped; it looks even spookier, like a spider missing a couple of legs.
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Business remains good, as you probably guessed, but it’s changing: In the past year, Greeley Hat Works has used the Entrepreneurial Operating System to set priorities and scale up even more. It’s gone better since his staff asked him to move his desk upstairs.
Downstairs, he often got sidetracked when his designers and hat-makers would bypass their managers and ask him a question, and he’d suddenly realize he had his apron on and was creating a hat with them.
“Then I have 96 missed texts,” Johnson said. “It is hard for me.”
Now that his desk is upstairs, he’s been better about running the place instead of working in it. It’s probably the role the self-titled chameleon has the hardest time playing: He is now the visionary, the role an owner plays, instead of hat-maker.
“I’m supposed to be the big-picture guy,” he said. “But I’m still down in the trenches sometimes. I can’t help it. I love what I do too much.”