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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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This Toronto hatter is anything but mad

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Stephen Temkin in his hat shop [Cara Stern photo]

TORONTO — Stephen Temkin isn’t hoping to change the fashion world with his business. He’s hoping there’s just enough work to keep him busy, but not too much that it becomes overwhelming.

Temkin is the owner of Leon Drexler, a one-man company that makes hats. Leon was his father’s first name and Drexler was his mother’s maiden name.

These hats aren’t your run-of-the-mill head-warmers. They’re bespoke beaver-felt hats, made to your exact measurements and customized to your taste.

His profession is a rare one – apart from custom cowboy hatters in the Prairies, he’s pretty sure he’s the last men’s dress hatter in Canada.

“If you’re interested in millinery [women’s hat-making], there’s all kinds of places to learn to do that, but making classic men’s dress hats, there’s nowhere,” he said.

It’s only thanks to the generosity of the few men’s hat-makers left standing that he was able to learn the techniques.

Temkin began wearing hats 20 years ago, when he bought one purely for functional purposes. It was a panama hat, made of straw and designed to keep the sun off his head.

A little while after that, he moved into felt hats, but he soon discovered the style wasn’t particularly popular in stores.

“The ability to buy really nice hats in retail stores has almost disappeared,” he said.

That’s when he started to make his own hats, which can’t be matched in retail stores in terms of the quality of the materials, as well as the precision in the construction, he said.

Temkin uses beaver felt, a material that he called incredibly durable and high quality. It’s a big step up from the most popular kind of felt used in men’s dress hats these days: wool. Although it’s much cheaper than beaver felt, he said it’s a far inferior material.

He gets his beaver felt from Tennessee, where he found the only supplier offering the felt in so many colours – 15 options in total, with everything from black, brown and blue to mustard yellow.

All of his ribbon comes from an old stash that he acquired, thanks to a bit of good luck and timing. He heard about a German company that was selling vintage ribbon bit by bit.

He sent the firm a message, saying he was interested, but it took about a year and the help of a friend in Germany to finally get the firm to respond.

When he finally reached the company, he was thrilled to hear it was trying to get rid of its entire stock. Hearing that he was interested in taking the lot, it offered him a price he couldn’t refuse.

That’s the kind of process that Temkin goes through each time he buy materials and equipment. Since he does everything the old-fashioned way, he has to track down the tools using antique auctions, eBay and anywhere else he can get his hands on them.

Every tool in his studio that isn’t actually vintage is modelled after an old-style version of one.

The vintage machines sit in his basement and attic studios in his Toronto home, where he also has a huge collection of wooden hat blockers and a range of mechanical devices, each to perform a different step in the hat-making process.

Each hat takes him six to 10 hours over many days to make. Since everything is made to exact measurements, it takes a lot of skill and care – it took Temkin two years from the time he started making them to the point where he felt confident enough to start charging money for them.

Hat prices start at $425, and at the time of his interview with The CJN, he had a waiting list 10 to 12 weeks long.

Most of his sales come from the United States, with people sending their head measurements using a detailed guide from his website. Each hat’s sweatband is personalized either with the buyer’s initials, a name, or even a quote. One hat that he was working on read: “A head only a hat could love,” at the request of the customer.

Temkin knows that these fancy hats aren’t particularly popular in the fashion world. They remain popular with certain groups and certain cultures.

Despite the fact his hats are a niche product, Temkin isn’t concerned. In the end, it’s really about being functional and keeping your head comfortable, he said.

If you’re going outside when it’s very hot out, a straw hat would keep your head cool, he explained. If it’s very cold out, a warm ear-covering toque is best. But for everything in between, a felt hat is perfect.

And for Temkin especially, it’s an absolute must when going outside. “It’s as normal as putting on my coat,” he said.

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