Those dressing as LL Cool J for Halloween can’t forget his signature hat, made by “Kangol.” And for DelMonico Hatter, the only store in Connecticut to sell hats exclusively, the Kangol headpiece has been the top seller this October.
Located on the corner of Elm and State streets, the store has been in New Haven since 1908 and began in an era when every man wore a hat. As fashions have changed, the store’s business practices have shifted as well, and today it markets to hat enthusiasts across the U.S. and the world to find buyers for its upscale wares.
The store primarily sells high quality hats for daily wear: tweed hats, felt fedoras, straw boaters, colorful berets and other head ware that sometimes costs as much as $500 a piece. The store also sells hats that fall in the $30 to $100 price range that prove popular around Halloween, store owner Ernest DelMonico said, and each year one of these emerges as the costume-seekers’ favorite.
“I don’t know what it is on a national basis, but the big one for us is [rappers in] the ’80s. I’m not going to get his name right,” DelMonico said. After a moment’s pause, he came up with the name — “LL Cool J.”
Last year’s top costume seller was the Mad Hatter’s emblematic top hat ($67.50). The year before, it was the wool felt Indiana Jones Fedora ($42.50).
The hats that get the most play on Halloween may not be the high-end merchandise in which the store takes most pride, but they are a far cry from the cheap replicas available at costume stores, DelMonico said.
Leading up to Halloween, the store presents these hats as “novelty” items, but most of them are available year-round.
“We’re not selling cardboard versions of them,” DelMonico said. “We’re selling the real hat so that somebody that really wants to furnish their costume well can.”
The store has attracted a number of celebrity customers over the years: congressmen and senators travelling to and from Washington D.C., George W. Bush’s ’68 uncle, John McCain’s wife, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Jimmy Kimmel.
Gregory Foster, who has worked at DelMonico’s for three years, said he’s still waiting for James Franco.
Halloween hats may not be the store’s focus, but in a society where hats are no longer a staple, DelMonico’s has been forced to adapt. Aside from capitalizing on holidays for which people might buy hats, like Halloween and the Kentucky Derby, the store has gone online and expanded its marketing efforts internationally to find a clientele of people who still wear hats daily.
DelMonico estimated about 70 percent of their business is done through their website, and ships many hats to Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom. Still, the employees make an effort to get to know customers who order hats online, DelMonico said.
“We have customers that we know by name that are all over the country, just as if we’d known them by name when this used to be just local,” DelMonico said.
During the beginning years when his grandfather ran the store, DelMonico said 100 percent of the male population was wearing hats. He attributed the decline of headware to a change in fashion.
Foster likened society’s perception of hats of those times to the current perception of cars; they served as status symbols. Rather than climbing into his Ferrari on the way to work, a man would simply toss on his Borcelino hat.
But, while the number of hat wearers has certainly declined since the early 1900s, DelMonico said he believes more people are wearing them today than five years ago.
And the true hat aficionados learn to come to New Haven to shop, DelMonico said. Every Friday and Saturday, groups of people come to the store, driving one or two hours from other cities in the Northeast to come see the shelves of hats lining the walls from floor to ceiling.
Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, University associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs and the owner of two DelMonico’s hats, said the store represents the best of the city’s tradition of family-owned businesses.
“They serve the local market but are also a destination retailer that brings people in from towns in the region,” he said.
DelMonico said the store still has a solid local base, but few Yale students have walked through the door of the store, which was tied open with a rope Thursday to let in the fall air. Though they sell the “official licensed new-era fitted Yale baseball cap”, DelMonico said it is more common for parents or faculty to come into the store.
‘THAT’S YOUR HAT’
An experience at DelMonico’s converted New Haven resident Ken Blumberg into a hat enthusiast about 12 years ago, he said. He was delivering advertisements door-to-door for the Shubert Theater in the pouring rain, and his Totes rain hat was not keeping him dry.
“It was soaking wet and I came walking in the door and there was this slight old man,” Blumberg said, describing DelMonico’s father, who owned the store at the time. “The guy had to be one-hundred years old.”
Blumberg described tossing DelMonico his hat, which the older man threw directly into the garbage. Then, the elder DelMonico grabbed two hats, and put one and then the other on Blumberg’s head. When he saw Blumberg in the second, a felt rain hat, he declared: “That’s your hat!”
“To this day, I have hats on at all times,” Blumberg said. “I have come literally every season to buy a hat.”
As for Foster, he said his favorite item in the store is the top hat.
“It’s something not everybody’s brave enough to wear,” he said. “But I like to break barriers. I always get compliments.”
Last year Foster created his own top hat out of fabric, metal and cardboard for his Halloween costume. He said he had yet to devise a plan for his costume this year, but was not worried — DelMonico’s is open on Saturdays.
Correction: November 1, 2010
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Steven Tyler’s band. It is Aerosmith, not Arrowsmith.