Master Hatter: Gary White
Dick Tracy, The Untouchables, Tombstone and Indiana Jones; movies in which the hats are so important, they almost become characters. Enter Gary White, master hatter on the corner of Broadway and Schmarbeck in Buffalo, NY. White made the hats you saw in those movies, including the one made famous by its wearer, Harrison Ford.
White has been making hats for 30 years, 20 of them on Buffalo's East Side. He renovates, replicates and makes from scratch, some of the finest handmade hats in the world. "Recently a guy sends me a video of The Greatest Show on Earth and asks me to replicate all the hats in the movie," White said. "They can't be duplicated exactly. The dyes were different, the chemical work isn't there. The industry changed its standards, and the quality of fur has changed."
Simply put, "The industry didn't produce junk 50 years ago." The man with the largest collection of vintage hat ribbon and blocks (wooden hat forms) made decades ago from blocks of Appalachian poplar that was aged 100 years laments the fact that "people got used to buying $80 hats". As a result, consumers lost an understanding of the materials, workmanship and expense that went into making dress hats, and craftsmen were laid off.
Referencing world-renowned hat makers, White said, "John Stetson and Giuseppe Borsalino were trappers. Some of the finer pelts now, like beaver and cashmere, come from ranched animals.
White said China is responsible now for buying a lot of the better resources like beaver fur, used to make the finest felt. In addition, a lot of the equipment doesn't exist anymore, and there are only 3 or 4 basic colors of dye to draw on. With all of these factors working against him, one would think White would have some trouble plying his trade, but that isn't so.
Recognized by Cigar Aficionado magazine for his mastery, White is as famous for what he does as some of those whose heads he covers, whether on stage, screen or around town. Looking at White's storefront, his general affable demeanor and the trouble it is pulling facts out of him that relate to his superlative accomplishments and abilities, one might not realize how sought-after his skills are. A scan of the walls however, tells the tale of his well-known clientele. Every celebrity shot, and there are many, represent those White has made hats for.
Actor James Garner's wife called on White for her husband's 80th birthday present. She was looking for a hat that would replicate one worn by Garner in the movie, Murphy's Romance. Looking for a variation on the brown hat with braided leather band, Mrs. Garner asked White to come up with a black version with a braided silver and gold band. Using beaver and chinchilla, the hat was completed with a band made by Navajo Indians, and a picture of Garner, in said hat, hangs in the modest store.
White picks up a replica of Stan Kenton's hat and gently turns, or "snaps" the brim by pressing it between his middle and ring fingers and his palm. The fluid motion around the edge of the brim gently brings it down in front. It's a movement that those born after the 50's may not be familiar with, but those of us who had style conscious elders know well, and there's a sentimental romance to it.
White's elders were the owners of the prestigious Peller & Muir clothing store. Starting in sales and rising to furnishings buyer, he had an opportunity to meet Alan Goldberg Vice President of Dobbs Hats. "I told him I wanted to make hats, and he told me he could count on his hands the hat makers he knew. Then one day he called me to say, 'I got a Christmas present for you.'"
Henry "The Hatter" Goldstein in Lynn, Massachusetts was looking for an apprentice, and White answered the call. Though he is now a master hatter and called the best in the country, White says that he's still learning his craft. And then there's the pressure. "Once you get a reputation, there's no margin for error," White said.
Of the hats he has on display, there are some with fancy creases on top, known as hooks or mad dog blocks. Chicago has a 'C' shape; Detroit an 'S'. "It tells what gang you're in," White says with a sly smile. Then he takes a hat with an ordinary crease and rounds the crown out from the inside. With a precision movement of his wrist and a gust of air through his lips, he blows the crease back in.
Does White need to measure for hats? "I can tell what size a person wears just by looking at them now," White said. How about style? Is White like that hairdresser or optician who knows just what a person needs to compliment their appearance? "I know what kind of hat a person will look best in based on height and size."
White has been a fixture in his East Side Buffalo neighborhood, has watched many families grow up, and still gets visits from neighborhood kids who come by to talk to the hat man. When it is mentioned to White that many a Buffalo resident considers a trip to him for a hat the sign that they have arrived, White is at once flattered and somewhat pained. He says, "I want to be for everyone…I wish I could afford to make hats for everyone," but he finds himself contemplating a move to an area with more foot traffic and the expendable income necessary to buy one of his hats.
White's daughter, Jenna, who is just completing a masters at UB and may be headed to law school, has suggested that her father may want to give his vast collection of equipment to the Smithsonian some day, but he has some hat making left in him yet. And there's one other thing, White made a promise to his mentor Henry Goldstein that he'd pass on the craft. Maybe someday soon, one of the neighborhood friends that he's watched grow up on Broadway will walk in and say, "Gary, I want to be a master hatter."