From an unassuming storefront on Buffalo’s East Side, one of the city’s most widely renowned craftsmen puts as much energy and artistry into the single hat ordered from a local walk-in as he does from his big orders from Hollywood costume designers.
Gary White is as humble as the generations-old tools of the hat making trade that surround him at The Custom Hatter on Broadway. He’s been selling hats to gentlemen (and now, more frequently, ladies) since working at Buffalo’s venerable old men’s clothier, Peller & Mure, in the 1970s.
Back then, you’d see his hats on the heads of gentlemen who worked in downtown Buffalo. Today, his hats are seen all over the world, from heads at The Broadway Market to movies like The Untouchables, Dick Tracy, and Indiana Jones, where the hats play as big a role as the actors.
“It makes a statement, a real fashion statement,” says White, who adds that a hat should reflect your character and be an extension of who you are. “When you’re wearing a well-made hat, you can not only tell by the fit of the hat, but also by the way the hat lusters and the trimming. There really aren’t words enough to explain it.”
For decades now, he hasn’t had to explain much: There’s a constant stream of people at his doorstep who get it, even though the styles predate the grandfathers of some customers.
“Many of my younger clients now start with the ready-made hats that come from China,” says White. After their fourth or fifth “disposable” hat, he says, they decide “they want to move up a notch to a nicer, better made hat. That’s when they come in to see me.”
He’s not being pejorative when he calls today’s mass-produced hats “throwaways.” They often don’t do well in rain or snow, the synthetic material makes them challenging to clean, and if they are crushed, they can’t be reblocked, or reformed back to their original shape.
“You get what you pay for,” he says.
White considers educating people about headwear a large part of his calling, saying every hat is a unique match to a unique person. “It’s like framing a picture,” he says, “nothing too wide, nothing too tall.”
There is a cost associated with the crafting and the quality of the materials that go into one of his hats, but thousands of customers from the famous to everyday folks say it’s worth it.
“After 40 years in the industry, I’m still learning,” says White — who’s quick to add something he learned long ago that always seems to hold true. “You can buy that $40 hat every year for the next 20 years, or you can buy one good hat that’s going to last you for the rest of your life.”
The Custom Hatter
1318 Broadway St., Buffalo