Alternatives became a necessity during the months of this COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone had to figure out new ways to adapt to their life situations. And suddenly, when we were nearing the shores of insanity Zoom appeared! Yes, Zoom—it gave us a virtual platform to hang out with friends, have birthday parties, celebrate New Year’s Eve, happy hour and musicians were streaming their performances live, oh happy day.
But wait, where was I going to wear all my hats (especially those from Bunn)? Then it hit me: of course, to the Zoom parties. It felt strange at first but, like Zoom and Linus’ blanket, it became a security source tying me to those pre-pandemic days when wearing hats and hanging out was pure joy. There was a time in Harlem when hats were more than a fad, they were a cultural statement, an independent style for both men and women. At the time (1950s), 125th Street was lined with men’s hat shops including Stetson, Knox and Beau Brummel. Once your hat was purchased it was steamed (steaming machines right there in the store) to keep its shape. There were all sorts of hat blocks including the Lester “Prez” Young’s favorite the “Porkpie.” Harlem cats liked the diamond shape.
As hat shops began disappearing in Harlem, as well as around Prospect Avenue in the Bronx and Fordham Road, the cultured style took a dive. Although jazz cats were still sporting brims they purchased on the road in hot spots like Chicago and Detroit, that wasn’t helping Harlem. Then 20 years ago, this young man named Bunn (right, first name only like Madonna and Prince), with swagger showed up, with something in mind but not sure what. He tried shoe making, then tailoring but after a visit to the garment district with a friend they were hooked on hats. “I wanted to do something that was more ethnic,” said Bunn. “No one was really making hats for people of color, people with dreds and braids needed to be accommodated as well. They were waiting for me and I was welcomed. There was a real void after the late ’80s when 125th Street changed.”
Bunn started off doing caps and funky stuff he made out of his home and sold on 125th Street and Lenox Ave., before moving into men’s dress hats. He added a “different rhythm” to the original hat designs, bringing it into play for a new demographic. Bunn says his felts are imported out of the Czech Republic and he deals directly with importers. “I had an opportunity to do wholesale but that would have involved reproduction and losing my identity as a craftsman. For me it’s one hat at a time.”
He was originally presenting fashion shows in front of his Harlem hat shop (Hats By Bunn) featuring designers and models from the tri-state area. “The show became so large it was difficult to handle without a staff,” says Bunn. “The objective of the show was to give back to the community.” He understands fashion styles and is not a clerk but a hat maker, so any of his suggestions to customers is worth adhering to. “If it doesn’t look right on you, it’s a bad reflection on me,” he stated.
The point is, you can see someone walking down the street wearing a hat and instantly know if it came from Bunn. “I want my hats to be different. I’m creating all the time, not following styles but trying to create styles I have in my own head,” he says. “If I follow the trends, I might as well get a regular job.” Bunn’s stellar reputation over the years has earned him referrals from such hatters as J.J. Hatters, on Fifth Avenue and 36th Street, perhaps the only major hatter left in New York City. “I like being here, doing what I do,” notes Bunn. “This is an institution. People go to Broadway, to Sylvia’s for soul food and then here to my shop.”
Ironically, men and women have been wearing hats for years but never had one made until Bunn came on the scene. “Each hat has its own challenge man or woman but same approach,” Bunn stated during our interview in his shop. “My church hats can be worn on a Wednesday, for Easter or to an art exhibit.”
Bunn originals have been worn at the Oscars, and in films, television and magazine layouts. His hats have become a mainstay for jazz musicians like Bill Saxton, Craig Harris, Patience Higgins, Etienne Charles, the writer and producer Willard Jenkins, singer Aaron Neville and this writer. During pre-COVID-19, a car of brothers had driven up from Washington, D.C. to pick up their original skimmers (hats). On another occasion, a minister and his wife drove up from Maryland, to pick up his order of four hats.
“When the mandatory lockdown came into effect, I took the first day off. Then the next day I went back to work, pulled down the gates and got busy every day, answering the phone and creating my summer line without interruptions,” explained Bunn. “For the first time in many years, I had a great line ready when June opened up. My customers immediately came in to support me, to make sure my doors stayed open. I have much respect for them.” Bunn is still waiting for some fabric due to the pandemic. He notes that his kids hooked him up with Instagram and Facebook accounts so he could have an online presence. His Instagram account had 17,00 viewers in the month of February. In his 20 years with Hats By Bunn he has never advertised. He says, “People like what I do. I am still me, still Bunn despite the success or recognition.”
Hats By Bunn, 2283 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. (7th Avenue), Harlem, New York. Website: https://hatsbybunn.com. Instagram: @hats_by_bunn. Facebook: www.facebook.com/Hats-By-Bunn-126581424184325/