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Chicago's Custom Hat Maker

Mar 22, 2017

Of course, this impeccably styled store in the historic Monadnock building, within earshot of rumbling Chicago El trains, isn’t where the story begins.

As a kid, Graham Thompson was enthralled watching film noir with his dad and the classic hats worn by Hollywood’s original megastars. This early love of hats led Graham to iconic South Side hat maker Johnny Tyus, where he convinced Johnny to make him his protégé. In 1995, when Johnny announced his retirement, Graham stepped up and bought the entire business — block, stock and imported felt ribbon. Graham’s promise, to continue Johnny’s legacy of handcrafting the best custom hats money can buy.

Johnny’s high standards for craftsmanship have not only lived on but, in fact, have flourished under Graham’s masterful guidance. In 2013, Optimo Hats moved their production, a goodly portion purchased from old world, turn-of-the-century hatmaking operations in Europe, including classic Singer Sewing Machines to create authentic Optimo stitching. This new hatmaking home is in Beverly, on Chicago’s South Side, naturally, built into a converted Chicago firehouse that first opened in 1915, ironically, at the height of hat-wearing men in America.

Yes, tradition is everything at Optimo, from the factory floor to the final, individualized fitting. Also staying true to one’s roots, many of Graham’s original hat designs are inspired by the city he loves, bearing their own stamp of neighborhood intrigue with names like The 47th Street, The Rush Street and The Hyde Park. And the one hat Graham designed for the coolest of all Blues legends, The John Lee Hooker — but that’s a story best told by Graham in person.

In one final (and not-so-subtle) twist of fate, modern-day megastars like Ben Affleck and Johnny Depp now cover their princely crowns with stylish chapeaus custom-designed by Graham Thompson, the high-end hatmaker who grew up loving the hats worn during Hollywood’s Golden Age. A reminder every day to Graham of what his own father and mentor, Johnny Tyus, preached to him from an early age. A philosophy of doing what you want, and doing it to the very best of your ability, passed down to a young apprentice and etched into every perfectly crafted brim: The best hat made.

Discover more Illinois Artisans at Illinois Made.

Hat blocks Rows of hats Shop window
A man standing in front of hat making machines
Photo cred: Danny Fogarty

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