The quality and style of Wellema hats

Wednesday, March 25th 2020
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Everyone you speak to about Cody Wellema (above) agrees on two things. That he’s a lovely, lovely man. And that his hats are top notch. 

I can certainly attest to the former - and the latter I’ll cover when I review the hat I’m having made, in a later piece. 

Cody is talented and rather modest. We spent a good bit of time together when the was here for the pop-up at the end of last year, and he rarely sings his own praises - despite being almost entirely self-taught, and making some of the best hats in the world. 

The hats stand out partly because there are so few good hatmakers left - making custom/bespoke, using beaver, finishing to the highest quality. It surprises people when they learn that the names they know - Lock, Borsalino - aren’t making to anywhere near these levels. 

Optimo is of course even rarer, being a small factory at this level. But there are also precious few one-man operations (Stephen Temkin in Toronto is the other one I’ve covered). 

Once you meet Cody, it’s not surprising that he’s reached that level quickly (he only began making hats in 2013). 

His earnest approach carried him through a period of frustration and pain when he was learning, inspired by the vintage hats he collected - which were so much better made than the ones he saw for sale today. (That's how Cody came to hatmaking - as an avid wearer of vintage clothing.)

He began making in his kitchen in a small flat in Santa Barbara, California. Taking apart vintage hats, seeing how they were made, and trying to replicate them.

The only books on hatmaking date from the beginning of the 20th century, and cover the business as much as the craft. And there were no companies prepared to teach anyone, or take on an apprentice.

It’s one reason he took on someone - Akira, from Japan - who left in 2019 after a couple of years training. 

After three years in Santa Barbara, Cody moved to Altadena, a small suburb about 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. 

The initial plan had been to open a shop in LA, but Cody and his wife liked the neighbourhood feel of Altadena, and it’s an area a few celebrities live - some of whom like to hang out in Cody’s store. 

I’ve never visited, but the pictures and the way Cody describes it make me want to spend a whole day there. Looking at books, listening to music, chatting to customers. 

It’s probably no coincidence that Cody’s attitude to retail is similar to that of Ethan at Bryceland’s (who has done much to spread to word about Wellema): a shop should be a place with character and story, where you want to spend time rather than buy and leave. 

The vast majority of Wellema hats are made in beaver felt, which is the best in pretty much every category: feel, fit, strength. Not using it (because it’s hard to acquire, and expensive) is the most obvious thing that sets top-quality makers on a par with vintage hats, and above brands today. 

“Beaver lasts longer, can be shaped and re-shaped - you can even run it over and find a way to block it back to health,” says Cody. “It’s a wonder material really.”

He does makes a little in a mink/beaver blend, which has a slightly more luxurious feel but the same performance as beaver. And he makes a little in hare (rabbit or hare is what most luxury brands use) for the sake of accessibility. 

A bespoke hat in hare is $500, while beaver is $650 and mink/beaver $800. Ready-made hats (only available in the shop) are around $100 less, while heavier ‘Western weight’ hats are about $50 more. Details like bound edges and vintage trimming add a few dollars. 

There are other US hatmakers that use beaver, and are cheaper. But the raw material is not the only factor, even if it is probably the most important one.

There's also the quality of the leather sweatband, which makes a big difference to comfort; the time taken with forming and setting the felt, which is easy to skimp on; and most time-consuming, the detailed hand-stitching on the band and lining. Good hand-stitching should be virtually invisible.

Cody buys his felts from a small US mill, and makes a good deal of Western weight or just Western-style hats. That’s also the style that Ethan has made well-known. 

Cody himself also tends to wear taller, pale-coloured hats, with crowns that look like they’ve been bashed around.

“I’ve always liked this very practical side of a good hat - that it’s something that gets better the more you wear it and beat it up,” he says. “It really does gain personality too, from the way you hold it, pinch it, wear it; little nicks and scrapes.”

However, Wellema ‘dress’ hats are just as refined as anything you might find in England or Italy, while retaining that strength - something I know at least one reader was surprised to see when he visited the pop-up shop. These are hats for anyone’s style. 

Indeed, that’s one thing Cody often talks about - that his customers range from sartorial guys to bikers, and dads in T-shirts and trainers. There’s nothing he likes more than showing how a style of hat can work for someone, no matter what their shape, clothes, or previous experience.

“It feels like part of the hat being very American, too,” he says. “There is a heritage here around hats - perhaps similar to how Scotland is known for knitwear, or England for tailoring. 

“Some of the best hatmakers in the world were here in the past, and they have history with jazz and blues, with cowboys and the West, with suited guys in the city. It was a very practical thing that everyone in America wore, in some way.”

This variety of style is also something I would have liked to have spent more time discussing with Cody. 

For while I’m now very used to wearing a wider-brimmed dress hat, with a tailored overcoat, I’ve never been quite comfortable wearing a hat more casually - without tailoring, with jeans. 

I think it’s a position a lot of guys are in with hats in general - it’s not something you’re used to wearing, so it takes a little time, interest and interaction to find your style. 

Perhaps it’s something I’ll have the chance to do when I do get to visit Altadena. It would certainly be easier with Cody’s full range of hats in the store, than with the small number he can take travelling. 

For now, I’ve ordered a pecan-coloured beaver felt in my regular style - tapered crown, brim around 7cm. Article on that soon.

www.wellemahatco.com

Photography: Of the Wellema shop, Robert Spangle; otherwise Wellema or Permanent Style

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Diego

Hello Simon, did you know that exactly today the new episode of HandCut Radio is about him?

Triskel

Hi Simon, I love hats and some of these look great. I agree, too about Borsalino – incredibly stylish (and I love wearing mine, bought in Italy) but perhaps not matched by the quality. Could you please give some information about the source, and hence sustainability, of the beaver felt used here?
Thanks.

robert gault

Most US custom hatters use Winchester felts. Fepsa make a great product but they have very high order quantities that puts them out of reach of most small custom houses. Optimo is the exception. I like the Winchester beaver and they make a great Nutria felt but their rabbit is inferior to the Fepsa or Tonak rabbit/hare. All of Winchester’s production is spoken for and for the last while I have not been taking on any new customers which makes entry into the custom hat business much harder. Felt supply is an issue.

Andreas

I really feel that hats are a topic where a lot of sartorially minded guys fail to take a step back and look at the big picture; hats simply didn’t have the staying power of the modern suit or necktie, and even if they are exceptionally well made, that doesn’t change the fact that they simply look out of place, if not outright ridiculous, in today’s world. Jerry Seinfeld‘s famous ruffled pirate shirt would have made him look just as foolish even if it had been made by the best shirt maker on the continent.

Felix

I completely agree with Andreas. If the essence of elegance is to look effortlessly good, what’s the point of any garment that is “a hard thing to wear without looking out of place”. Even for the few (usually just exceptionally good-looking) people who can somehow pull off wearing a hat it will always seem like a very conscious decision of someone who thinks a lot about clothes.

I can actually think of only two situations where wearing a hat seems like a natural, unsuspicious choice these days: straw hats on very hot summer days in a holiday environment, and maybe shooting parties in continental Europe (but I would be happy to learn about which other situations you find hat-appropriate for men under 70).

Felix

Don’t get me wrong, I see that these are elegant, well-made objects (so are walking sticks), but I really wouldn’t want to be “that guy with the hat”. Do you personally know any “real” people outside the menswear industry who are younger than 60 and habitually wear hats (in a professional/social environment) that you would say look elegant and natural? Do you see them in the City?

It also seems to me that if you wear a hat it has to be an absolutely flawless outfit, and if there is something a little off it immediately looks really bad and forced.

Anonymous

I tend to put hats of this type in the category of bow ties – things people wear in part as a function of how they look but mostly to signal “I’m the kind of person who wears bow ties”. But I think, like bow ties, they do have their place.

CKarnan

Hi Felix
I suppose “that guy with the hat” would be me. I met Simon and Cody at the PS pop up shop last year and ordered my first ever brimmed hat ( dark blue trilby in beaver ). It arrived three weeks ago and have loved it.
A couple of weeks after the pop up shop last year, I happened to be walking down Savile Row and saw an Optimo popup shop.
This was fairly late in the evening and I wandered in to have a quick look around. I ended up spending about two hours chatting to Graham, the Optimo founder and one of his friends who was hanging out there. I tried
a number of hats and ended up ordering my second hat, a mid grey trilby also in beaver. The Optimo arrived mid February this year. Been wearing it Monday to Friday for six weeks to the office, although now working from home due to the covid19 pandemic. I’ve reached the point where it would feel odd if I didn’t wear it. People at work were a bit surprised for a couple of days but all comments so far were positive. Both my teenage daughters giggled when I tried it on, but thought it looked OK. The only “negative” I got was from my wife who called me Inspector Gadget for a while.
Am looking forward to wearing the Wellema in more social environments as it doesn’t look as formal ( to my eye) as the Optimo, which I’ll continue to wear to work when we are finally allowed back.
I’m not replying here to refute your comments and questions, but by way of a counter factual;
I’m a 49 year old and work in the City as an IT guy.

Noel

I have gradually expanded my choice of hats from the beanie (if it counts) to a Panama hat in summer (doesn’t look out of place ) and more recently a flat cap in winter (not too unusual). In my 30s, this is as much as I feel I can get away. I might experiment with different types of flat caps. Perhaps eventually I hope to try a fedora in winter with an overcoat.

Felix

Being in my 30s as well this would also be my selection, probably with a more casual straw/sisal hat instead of a sharp Panama. I actually think that when necessary in winter, a good beanie or watch cap can look great even with a relatively formal coat and suit. I don’t think the same about flat caps, with formal clothes to me they often give an overly retro-ish Peaky Blinder style vibe.

As for flat caps, I think they are great in the country, but to me personally the connotations with shooting are very strong, which I find a little problematic if you only want to walk your dog – in the sense that it can look somewhat pseudo-gentry/aspirational, in particular when combined with Tweed or cords.

That being said, I have to admit this is probably very context specific. I live in the Netherlands, where people tend to dress in a very modern and casual way across all age groups and social classes. I can imagine that when actually living in the British countryside or the US, you can get away with it more easily,.

Burt

a beanie and a watch cap make a head look smaller, like the head of a turtle. True, it’s difficult to wear a hat in a good way, but beanies and watch caps almost always make the wearer seem smaller and make his head shrink. That does not look good at all. But as everybody is wearing beanies, nobody cares.

Peter K

Maybe the brimmed hat is out of style but as Simon notes on the article almost everyone wears a hat in the rain or cold. As a balding man I need one to protect my scalp from sunburn as well.

That is usually a flat cap or a Tilley cloth hat for gardening, camping and hiking. I would love to try a Panama but, I suspect, like most men I am a afraid of looking ridiculous. And I have a small head and narrow face, which makes finding a suitable hat very difficult.

Kev F

Peter K. I share both your problem as to need and apprehension over getting a hat but made the decision to acquire a Panama a month or so ago (meaning to wear it out and about this summer – oh well, there’s hopefully next year). I was afraid of getting too wide or tall a hat but went to Lock’s where I got some very sound advice as to styles, fit etc. I ended up greatly preferring the wider brim – once you hear the advice and see for yourself in a mirror the apprehension goes. My advice would be to go get yourself one; much better than a red and burnt head!

Noel

A Panama hat in summer doesn’t look ridiculous at all. You could also go with one that has a narrower brim. They seem to be fairly common and frequently sold in touristy shops during summer.

Kyle

I wear a brimmed hat here in Massachusetts nearly every day between November and April, and most men here wear hats of one sort or another in that season as well. The majority of those hats are not brimmed, I concede, but brimmed hats are not uncommon and they blend in more, I would say, than does tailored clothing. Neckties left this region, but the hats haven’t.

Peter

The little I’ve interacted with Cody has been nothing but professional and courteous. Was trying to round up a few folks in San Francisco for a trunk show but sadly that’ll have to be put on hold.

I have a beaver Stetson that I received as a gift a while back, and it took me a while to figure out how to wear it. Once I did, it’s always a little exciting when I get the chance to put it on.

Chingstein

I met Cody about 2 years ago when he did a trunk show at Bryceland’s in Hong Kong. He is a great guy with great style and his hats are a perfect topper for a fine tailored suit. I didn’t place an order at the time only because I was having one made by another hatter (shout out to Art Fawcett), but when the Fedora bug hits again Wellema is on the top of my list.

Krishna

Cody makes an excellent hat, as my navy mink one (my first proper hat!) attests to. As a 29 year old in a “flyover” city in the US, I was taking a bit of a sartorial risk when I first started wearing it but in the end it feels as natural as anything if it fits right and is appropriate with the rest of your outfit, even if not in a classical sense. I wore mine with a Visvim denim jacket, navy chinos and a shirt and tan suede Chelsea boots on a cool spring day and never once felt out of place wearing it.

As with all things “fashion” (and not in the pejorative sense), all it takes is a mindset and a basic sense of what goes with what and you’ll be fine. Too many people my age or younger find hats to be unapproachable but I think that’s a personal and not insurmountable barrier

Simon Phillips

Hi Simon, I wondered if you might know of any UK based bespoke hatmakers? I have really enjoyed your pieces recently on hats but would be keen to explore a more local option.
Great articles as ever!

Emerging Genius

They need to have a purpose. It really depends where you live and the climate. Living in Chicago where it’s cold for about seven months of the year, and regularly snowing and raining in that season, a broad-brimmed hat keeps you dry and keeps you warm. Especially if you’re a Chrome Dome like me.

Robert Charlemagne

Hi Simon, I met you upstairs in Fortnum & Mason. I am 53 and have been wearing a hat since I was 8. Bobble hats in the 70’s, a purple velvet Baker’s boy saw me through the 80’s and baseball caps in the 90’s. Mid 30’s saw the new Millennium and I bought a Lock & co. Homburg after seeing a picture of Paul Robeson. I now have 3 Homburgs inc. a smaller Lock and Roll. Several rabbit felt and straw Fedora’s. Being in England my most used is a 12 year old Harris Tweed bakers boy from Haywards. The thing is the right hat with the right outfit, weather and occasion dictating. It probably goes without saying, I no longer wear the styles of the 70′ and 90’s because I don’t dress that way.

MIKE S

Simon, a great article on Wellema, and I look forward to the review of your pecan-coloured fedora from Cody. I couldn’t agree more with Krishna’s comment: “…all it takes is a mindset and a basic sense of what goes with what and you’ll be fine. …find hats to be unapproachable but I think that’s a personal and not insurmountable barrier.” I am 60 years old and have been wearing hats for twelve years now; fascinated by the craftsmanship and comfort of a fine fedora. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about leaving the house to go to the office in a fedora, but it truly is a “mindset”, and as time passed, the confidence grew to the point where now my neighbours and colleagues would think it odd to see me without a hat. Living in the Toronto area, I have amassed a collection of fur felts and panamas for all seasons, and I agree with your assessment of the classic names, as my out-of-the-box Borsalino looks great, but lacks the comfort and fit of my custom Leon Drexler from Stephen Temkin, and I would expect the same should I some day commission a Wellema. For me. what was once a mindset, is now a mainstay.

robert gault

There is a renaissance of hat makers in the USA right now. I have not seen a Wellema hat but I own 2 of Mr Temkin’s great works along with hats from 9 other custom houses in the US and Europe. All of them make a great hat, out of Beaver (most custom hatters in the US use felts from Winchester based in Tennessee so all are using the same raw material). Prices are wide ranging for what is from top price to bottom price the same finished product. Shop around and you can save yourself some $$$ if you take the time to research. Check out the chat group….The Fedora Lounge for great hat information.

robert gault

Art Fawcett, Vintage Silhouettes unfortunately just retired and sold his shop. He is a Master hatter and his pricing was 50% cheaper than Wellema and about mid market in terms of price point.
Northwest Hats out of Eugene is another great hatter at a price lower than even Art’s work.
Michael Gannon, somewhere in CA, website only, no bricks and mortar is a very good up and comer as is Phoenix Hats out of Knoxville.
BlackSheep HatWorks in Bremerton WA makes hats equal to Mr. Temkin for under $400 but he has a 12 month wait list.

All use the Winchester beaver felt as well as offer some Tonak hare. I have multiple hats from each of them and can attest to their craftmanship. It is a competitive business and each has to offer product that measures up. The sweats are all top quality leather, all the same beaver felt, and great ribbon work. Some offer better boxes than others, some more snazzy liners but in terms of the quality of the outer finish all are top notch.
It seems to me that pricing in the custom hat business is related to location. Hatters charge what their market will bear and hence the wide range of price points for what is largely the same quality item LA and Chicago hatters for instance seem to be able to charge more for their hats as perhaps that is a more affluent pool of buyers.

Ben

Robert, thank you for this list. I was not aware of the other hat makers besides Cody and Stephen. I own one had Cody and in line for a second. I called Black Sheep yesterday and put down a deposit to get on line. I love beaver as it is super durable but, the Winchester beaver felts are quite stiff, that is my only complaint.

I was fortunate to meet Cody in person so he took my measurements. Black sheep sends a kit that seems reliable but, Stephen Temkin asks you to provide your own measurement which seems less reliable.

There is always a bit of an unknown with a custom hat. You can say that you want a 2.5 inch brim with a 4 inch crown, but still not know exactly who it will look when finished. At this point, I have several hats so I am up for the risk (it even excites me). But for a beginner, they are better off going to s store so they can walk out with exactly what they want

robert gault

Ben: Yes, it works best if you know your style before embarking on the custom path. Many of the custom hats I have the hatters have mailed me conformateurs to they have my exact head shape. I am fortunate to have a relatively standard oval. My hats from Temkin fit me perhaps the best of any of my customs and he does not use the conformateur. I would own more Black Sheep hats as well as Mr Temkin’s but that year long wait list is a killer. I think there two hatters sit at the top of the heap in terms of quality and attention to detail. Once you know your style the risk is eliminated and a custom hat will cost you only a few dollars more than the mass produced hats off the shelf.

Jason

Becoming a ‘Hatster’ is the most advanced sartorial art.
Those few who achieve success live with it glued to their heads in such a way that it becomes a physical extension.
When the man from Optimo puts his had on, it jumps onto his head and it sits at precisely the right angle. He knows exactly how it will look and never has to check a mirror.
The professional ‘Hatster’ wears his hat with everything. It is not a fad or an affectation. He never looks uneasy handling it. He knows exactly when to take it off and put it back on and he’ll probably be buried in it.
The ‘Hatster’ wouldn’t be seen stiff in a beanie, a cap or even worse a baseball thingy. To him such things are an anathema. He only ever changes his two season hat for a Panama.
To be a ‘Hatster’ requires total dedication. This is why 99.9% of flaneurs fail and finish up looking completely ridiculous.
Worth bearing in mind !

Paul

Great story on Mr Wellema! I guess the whole issue with wearing a hat is your own confidence. Maybe also with wearing a cap for the first time, but especially with a hat. Being bold, by choice I must add, I always wore a cap to protect me from the cold and the sun. 2 years ago I took the plunge and bought a panama which seemed to do a much better job on sun protection than a cap! It took a few days to get used to but, it being a good hat, it got me hooked pretty fast. I even got compliments! Since, I bought some vintage fur felts hats to find out what I like in sense of hight, crown, brim. Did some stretching, pinching, replaced a ribbon. Now I never leave the house not wearing a hat. I wear it with a coat, a Barbour or a peacoat, it all works. Just do it. Finally knowing what I like, I guess the next step is having one made…

Paul

Hi Simon,
sure it is not for everyone. You need some guts to wear a hat, but that could be said for more things in life. It’s only a matter if you are overly aware of it. Often it is more you than the others. I think the change of receiving a compliment is greater than being ridiculed 🙂

Ned Brown

Simon, as a hat lover, these look first rate. Do they make a wide brim hat like the one Churchill used for casual wear- not the Homburg. I can send Wellema photos if they want. Stay safe.

Robert

Reading through the pro fedora/panama comments… the common thread appears to be JUST DO IT. If you want to give hats a try – don’t over think it, don’t be thin-skinned with the inevitable comments/criticisms (even from your own wife!) and just continue to throw on your hat regardless of what people around you are wearing/thinking/saying. If you are regarded as ‘the hat guy’ so what? You like the hat, you want to wear the hat, you feel good in the hat… so wear the hat.

Ned Brown

Having read the comments, I would add my own personal experience. When I lived in New York, and wore a suit to work, I found that on most winter days, all I needed was a hat, scarf and gloves. If I walked briskly outside, I was plenty warm. And wearing an overcoat in the subway/underground was often too hot.

Craig

I own one hat made by Cody and hope to order another once this virus has run its course. Great guy and nice shop. I own other bespoke hats and his craftsmanship is beyond compare. The hats are worth the time and money.

Anonymous

How does Cody’s craftsmanship and style compare to Optimo hats? Graham seems to have a sleeker, smarter style, maybe? And Cody’s more western?

Anonymous

I didn’t quite get the answer from the article. You mention Cody is a one man operation vs Graham who has a factory. And Cody makes a lot of western hats for clients. But what about personal style and an actual comparison of craftsmanship? Can Cody make a smart hat that’s not overly casual? Is he as good as Graham?

Anonymous

Thanks for your insight Simon!

Craig

Cody makes fedoras and western hats. He hand sews everything himself. There are no others involved. I’ve never owned or even held an Optimo hat, but would go to the store in a second if it was close to me here in Los Angeles. One doesn’t want to have a at made if it isn’t measured by the maker….. Here’s Cody’s Insta: https://www.instagram.com/wellemahatco

H

Thanks for the article Simon.

IMHO hats are ultimately very practical things if you spend any time outside. If they are well made they last and if the style is well chosen they look good on the wearer.

I really enjoy not needing an umbrella and striding through the weather in London wearing mine!

Andrew P

I wear a hat every day. And while I’m no longer under 60, I’ve been wearing felt hats and Panamas for many years. A hat is an immensely practical thing to wear, first and foremost. I do wish I’d taken to wearing brimmed hats even earlier in life, as skin problems at the temples could have been lessened (I live in a sunny climate). As for those people who believe hat-wearing is anachronistic or that hats look out of place: oh, well. I simply don’t care what those people believe.