Traditional Hat Makers & Master Shoemakers—Head and Feet Above the Rest

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A shoemaker’s tools, and bespoke shoe in progress. Photo by Joyce A. George

By Kelley Shields

Most people will work to provide a living for themselves while only a small number will provide themselves the living they want to do through the work they choose.

Without question a smaller populace within the populous, those who follow their heart’s call are nonetheless a critically important segment of any community. It requires a particular quality of energy—a blend of vision, courage, tenacity, ingenuity and near boundless energy—to produce something people want, that the producer of said something additionally wants to provide. For the past 30 years this quality of energy, the magic of creativity to be succinct, has literally transformed the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area. This article profiles a few local creatives making beautiful hats and shoes that many of us want to own.

Some hats provide a finial effect, literally decorating the tip of our tops while others function more like shelter from the elements, housing our psychological centers. Others still are hybrids offering both exemplary style and housing which, following the metaphors of finial-hats and shelter-hats through would make the hybrid types, penthouses for the head!

This whimsical observation is brought to mind because two incredibly artful hatters in the area are about to join forces: Ryan Wilde, milliner-extraordinaire, proprietor/partner of the recently shuttered IDA (a collaborative venue launched in 2011 that showcased the assortments of Wilde and jeweler Georgia Varidakis) is joining Sean O’Toole’s venture, Pork Pie Hatters at 441 Metropolitan near Marcy—all of which is meaningful because their pairing is bound to provide a bounty of offerings across the finial-shelter-penthouse array.

Pork Pie Hatters, established in 2011 in the East Village, opened its Williamsburg location in 2012. Progeny of the long-established J.J. Hat Center in Manhattan, the story of how Sean O’Toole came to open two of his own shops is almost a cliché, but not actually because his is an interesting and satisfying story which clichés ultimately are not due to their utter predictability.

An Invisible Product Until You Need It—Matthew Mullen, Insurance Man for the New Millennium

Matthew Mullen at his Manhattan Avenue office in Greenpoint
PHOTO BY CHRIS BISHOP

Matthew Mullen at his Manhattan Avenue office in Greenpoint
PHOTO BY CHRIS BISHOP

By Kelley Shields

Imagine you are looking for employment and you come across a listing on a job board that reads: “Sales associate wanted, to sell invisible products no one wants to use.’” Can you imagine wanting that job? Can you imagine the difficulty of trying to provide people with intangible, undesirable things? And if you did want it, can you further imagine becoming so good at it that you stand out among others attempting to do the same thing?

Matthew Mullen can. Exclusive agent/owner of the Mullen Agency, at 661 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, his is currently the largest Allstate franchise in the area.

Becoming the -est at anything, whether it be the best, biggest, fastest, etc., implies that supremacy, or at least a certain measure of excellence, has been reached. I think the saying goes: Pursue excellence and success will follow. Over the course of the hour or so I spent talking with Matthew, it became apparent that how he measures excellence correlates with service—both to the individuals he writes policies for, and to the community he is doing business in.

How does one become the largest independently owned Allstate agency in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area? It can’t be that all it takes is buying existing rosters of policyholders, or books, from retiring agents. Certainly, acquiring pre-existing policies provides a healthy start to a fledgling insurance agency, and is a welcome infusion for an existing business, but retention of customers post-purchase of a book is not guaranteed. On an unconscious level, customers might associate their protection with factors like the stability of whomever sold them their policy, or where the office is located. The familiarity of a face or locale can mean the difference between a renewal, a cancellation, or a lapse. So if buying up other people’s businesses will not in itself create a successful insurance agency, how is it accomplished?

By talking to people about things they do not want to think about. By building a rapport and helping them make choices that will preserve their assets and mitigate the risks of some potential—and other inevitable—eventualities.

Selecting what insurance to buy, and the agent to provide it, are emotional choices governed to a certain extent by individual thresholds of fear and trust. Essentially, people buy insurance to protect themselves against potentialities they do not want to think about, much less experience, due to their fear of grave losses. But they know it is prudent to think about and take action on those potentialities.

With respect to life insurance, I’d venture to say that, for many people, awareness of one’s mortality recedes into the background of living fully in the present. However, leaving loved ones without resources to carry on in our absence is an avoidable ill, if a policy is in place. And as for property insurance, besides being obligated to carry it as a mortgagor or business owner, no one wants to imagine their home or business decimated by a hurricane or reduced to rubble by a fire. But on some level, we know the possibility exists, which is why the compensation insurance could provide becomes a reasonable trade-off for premiums that are, hopefully, uncollected on year after year.

I asked Matthew what attracted him to the insurance industry. “My father was in the business. At a certain point he needed me for what was going to be a short period of time, a few months maybe. That was 1993. It was 2004 by the time I left. I realized pretty early into it, that talking to people felt good, it felt right.”

Matthew grew up in East Rockaway, Long Island. After college he worked in the Community Service Corps of Syracuse, for the Catholic Charities Diocese. He ran both an elementary and a teen program at Vincent House. During a break in his corps service, a trip to visit his sister in New Orleans during Mardi Gras resulted in a lengthy stay. He fell in love with the city and entered grad school there at Loyola University on an MBA track, heading for a future in investment banking. Early on he won an internship with Paine Webber, working with the real estate investment trusts team. It was interesting, but apparently not enough. So when the opportunity to work with his father came up, he switched gears without hesitation.

Matthew went on to describe, with palpable heartfelt admiration, how the opportunity to be of help was matched only by the pleasure it gave him just to be around his father, who he referred to as “Dad” in the office only once. A terse correction set the professional demeanor Michael Mullen expected of his son in the workplace. Thereafter, in the office he called his father Mike. Their handedness—Matthew the righty and Mike the lefty—defined the arrangement of their desks, butted up against each other in an L-formation. They worked side-by-side for 13 years, serving Mullen Sr.’s Allstate customers in Canarsie.

We talked about how he builds rapport, a term he used more than a few times, I suspect because it most aptly describes the quality of relationship he strives to establish with his customers—one of mutual understanding, trust, agreement, and connection through a commonality of interests. Matthew says the key to his success is understanding his customers’ needs. And although he claims the “talking to people” aspect is what hooked him, the only way a person comes to truly understand someone else is through less talking and more listening. So, to be number 1 in the Allstate business, Matthew Mullen must in fact be an accomplished listener.

“You have to find out what is appropriate for them and sell them only what they need after helping them weigh out cost vs. benefit in all the possible scenarios.

“I run an agency and never charge my customers a service fee. Even when I act in the capacity of ‘broker,’ I will not charge my clients broker fees. The difference between an agent and a broker is that an agent represents a company to the insured, and a broker represents the insured to the company. The broker is paid commission from the company they place the policy with and they then charge the insured

fees—usually quite high—to represent them. As an agent I am paid only commission. When I write policies that are not from Allstate, I act as a broker, but still never charge the service fees to my customers. When brokers charge a fee they must disclose it to the insured.”

Wow. How unlike a recipe for success does that sound? Never mind success, how unlike the sales impetus in general does that sound? However counter-intuitive his methodology seems, it is clearly working.

Agency size is measured by policies in force, premiums, and households insured. Matthew’s ratio of new to pre-existing policies is about equal. All told, Matthew has bought three books of business. In 2005, he bought his first book from a fellow Allstate agent named Lou Mazzeo. Lou had been operating his Allstate franchise on Nassau Avenue between Leonard and Eckford for over 15 years and was eager to get a Manhattan-based book he heard was coming up for sale. Wanting to concentrate solely on his new area, the sale to Matthew went through in 2006, and he opened his first independent office on Manhattan Avenue between Nassau and Driggs. Matthew’s business grew further through the purchase of policies in force held by two more Allstate agents, both of whom were retiring: his father’s Canarsie book in 2008, and Irv Tyler’s Grand Army Plaza book in 2011. As his policy volume grew, so did his need for more agents to specialize in specific products and a larger space in which to conduct the business. In 2011, he moved to his current location, a larger office also on Manhattan Avenue, between Bedford and Norman. Matthew employs six associates, four of them residents of the area.

I asked him about the changes he’s observed over the course of the seven years he’s been commuting here from Rockville Centre, Long Island. He naturally referenced the massive shift in demographics, and I asked how the shift is translating to trends in policy sales in the area.

“With the increase in the condo development and subsequent purchases, I noticed a need to provide guidance to an affluent population with assets outside of the typical contents to protect. Along these lines clients with art collections, for example, come to mind. In standard homeowner policies replacement costs would not apply to fine art or antiquities.”

With the population growth and its general age on the younger side, and with residents just beginning families, there is also an increase in the need to talk about life insurance. No stranger to tragic loss, Matthew lost his sister, a mother of three girls at the age of 43, when a seemingly innocuous fever was followed by swift descent into cancer. The unspoken message taken from the sharing of this personal detail was that, although one should not live life banking on the worst, betting against it entirely isn’t wise. Fortunately, just a year and half before her demise, Matthew sold his sister a life insurance policy.

I had the impression that Matthew doesn’t employ service to gain success, but rather that it is as an imperative of his nature. We touched on Hurricane Sandy, the attending spike of 1,000 or so claims—most of them from the Brooklyn area—and the affect it had on his agency. Allstate provided the funds for Matthew to hire three specialists, advocates for the claimants, to work directly with his clients from filing through to settlement. The added staff stayed on until January, and their presence meant claims were processed quickly (Allstate as a company is, at this time, 98% settled and paid on all Sandy claims) and at a higher return for the affected home and business owners. Those claimants might otherwise have hired public adjusters, whose fees are steep and come out of the proceeds of the claim payout. Contracting on-site advocates who were focused exclusively on processing Sandy claims meant Matthew’s customers could feel confident in both the timely progression of their claims—and fair outcomes.

The Greenpoint/Williamsburg business community also benefits from Matthew’s service-minded ideology. He is currently working with the Chamber of Commerce on an initiative to educate small-business owners on the Affordable Care Act, and how it may affect them, hoping to bring clarity to a complex issue. Timing is critical, as business owners will need to make important decisions about the act before October 1, 2013. When asked how he structures his philanthropic outreach, he says he depends on the strength of advocates like Susan Anderson, who founded and manages the highly visible and effective Town Square network. In addition to his upcoming seminar on the Affordable Care Act, his agency recently hosted an information session as part of the 2013 Baby Fest event, focused on everything parents need to know about 529 federal tax-free college savings programs.

For agents like Matthew, who walk-the-talk of being a community-minded business, Allstate has match programs in place to augment the agent’s sponsorship. The matching funds come from their Good Hands in the Community Grants. Through his affiliation with the Sons of the American Revolution, Matthew has received company matches for scholarships for the Eagle Scouts and cash award prizes for the winners of the Knights Essay, a contest open to high school students. Most recently, his agency sponsored a golf tournament for the Association of Children with Down’s Syndrome.

With an innate expertise so keenly focused on understanding needs projected against future outcomes, I asked Matthew what he sees for the Greenpoint/ Williamsburg area in the coming years.

“All good things,” he responded without hesitation. “Everything is moving in the right direction.”

There’s Looking Good, and There’s Looking Better—Men Tailoring it Up a Notch

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The CADET USA menswear boutique team co-creators & co-owners Raul Arevalo and Brad Schmidt, found the vintage jacket at the Brooklyn Flea. The buttons on the jacket say “CADET.” It was a big source of inspiration for them. Their Aviator Pant is their signature pant based on a vintage US Air Force pant. Their store is located at 46 N. 6th St in Williamsburg, and their apparel factory is located in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Cadet Website CADET Photos by Jason Falchook / Model Randall Harris


By Kelley Shields / Photos by Victoria Stillwell

What is driving the rash of men-centric retail environments in this area, such as barber shops/shaving parlors and higher-end apparel boutiques like Barber & Supply, HW Carter & Sons, Cadet, Robinson Brooklyn, Genuine Motorworks and By Robert James? Could it have something to do with the “recovering” economy?

It could, depending on how one looks at current available stats, but bear in mind that data on unemployment is rampantly skewed by age, ethnicity, data collection time frames—you name it. So maybe the bump up in male-destination retail growth in our area does not really have too much to do with female unemployment surpassing male joblessness for the first time in six years, as reported by the New York Times in January. It would probably be too simplistic to associate guys suddenly having a .1 % advance in employment over gals with the sudden surge in this sector of retail offerings in our area.

Perhaps, then, it has to do with shifts in the gender division in the ongoing tide of new residents. What do those stats look like?

Well, they are pretty close, as reported by citymelt.com, a demographics data site. The figures are close enough, in fact, to suggest that the activity in the retail sector showcasing male assortments and/or services could not be related to a marked difference in population values by gender. In zip 11211, the population is split fairly evenly: 44,522 males and 45,595 females. And in zip 11222, there is an even smaller gap between the two sexes: 18,415 males and 18, 519 females.

CADET Patrol Shirt with matching Patrol Tie and Patrol Pant.

So what is fueling this almost frenetic pace of retail men-centricity?

The associate working the register on a recent Thursday afternoon at Barber & Supply tried to answer my question: “It’s just a trend, and like any other trend it’s related to demand, like all the Americana restaurants opening up.” He also commented on their other Barber & Supply locations in Manhattan, thereby qualifying, I suppose, his statement about demand; on this particular day, and at this particular time, the chairs were empty, employees draped across them chatting with each other. I will concede that on other days, at off-work hours, the chairs are likely occupied, and the beautiful wood waiting-bench is probably full. The only problem I have with his answer is that trends don’t manifest out of nowhere. There is generally something that topples the first domino.

Maybe it has to do with a shift in the historically (read: possibly outdated) female prerogatives of, 1) shopping for pleasure, and 2) curating one’s self image; that is, literally projecting the perception being sought through choices in wardrobe, hair, makeup, body art, jewelry, etc.

Justin, the store manager of HW Carter & Sons, offered his observation that dandyism was most recently revived around the time the influence of two pop icons—Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Moss—was cresting, pointing out that both figures emanated a powerful opposing energy to their idol category. He was a beautiful boy, and she, a thoroughly non-voluptuous woman. Perhaps the celebration of sexual duality within a single gender was responsible for setting the stage for the dandy’s concerns to not only return, but to thrive. And thrive they have, for some time. It would be a mistake to infer that because shops like By Robert James and Robinson Brooklyn (both labels already established in Manhattan with doors recently opening here in Williamsburg around the same time HW Carter & Sons did) have cropped up in Williamsburg at this time, that dandyism is suddenly a thing again. To Justin’s point “it” has been a thing for a while, citing the long-running success of the RRL label as an example, a brand he feels perhaps HW Carter’s fall assortment shared at least some customer crossover with.

ALTER MEN’S STORE male model wears Globe Crock ó Clock shirt, charcoal blazer, military street cap, ALTER pocket square, Spitfire Modernist sunglasses; Woman wearing men’s clothing: ALTER Shades of Grey Zebra Head Jacket, Shades of Grey crew neck tee. MALE MODEL: GEORGE RICHARDS / STYLING: ALTER
FEMALE MODEL: SHIMENG ZHOU

BROOKLYN TAILORS Grey and White
Striped Shirt. Female model wearing man’s shirt.

HOLLANDER & LEXER RJ Shirt in Blue, Rosario Tie in White Check; HOLLANDER & LEXER Natural Pant / accessories: Rosario Tie with Print, Multi-Cowrie Shell, Black Leather Bracelet with Claws, Woven Cream Bracelet , Leather Double and Single Buckle Bracelets.

That assessment explained a lot to me, paired with his observation that his customer base is densely weighted by tourists from the also relatively new (and swank) local hotels. The takeaway is this: residents of Manhattan and points elsewhere are coming here both to shop for things they are familiar with, and for a little fun thrown in, the fun of “discovering” something new.

The area’s fate is sealed. It is well on its way to being Soho-ized. With Racked’s confirmation of leases being signed by Urban Outfitters, J.Crew, and Anthropologie, someone ought to be working on a tear-jerker of a eulogy: “RIP Williamsburg. From those of us that knew you from way back. It has been a beautiful run.”

Re-enter the demand theory, which I find on some level anemic as the complete answer, in that demand is collateral; meaning, it is a response to something. Unsatisfied in my quest to identify the progenitor of “what” is behind this response/surge in male-focused retail activity, I went shopping for some more perspective. I dropped in to Alter Men, possibly the pioneer of the male destination retail trend in this area, established on Franklin Avenue in 2007, and talked shop for a bit with Gordon and George. I also stopped by Hollander & Lexer, a brand first established in Manhattan in ’06, with their Metropolitan Avenue location opening in 2009, and chatted with Manny. I asked them what they thought was driving the growth in men’s-only shops in the neighborhood, and if they felt it was helping or hurting their businesses.

Manny, of Hollander & Lexer, feels there has been a growing interest in men’s wear in general over the past two years due largely to his observation that the volume of male celebrity icons is surpassing females for the first time in a long while. He thinks this has influenced the editorial coverage of men’s fashion and pushed male wardrobing and body care past the previous metrosexual ideal; his sense is that more males than ever now feel comfortable admitting they want to look good.

Gordon and George, of Alter, have not noticed any change—negative or positive—in their business (which looks very healthy from the density of shoppers trying on, cashing out, and perusing racks the Sunday afternoon I was there) since the arrival of the newbies. Their take on what is driving the growth and how it might affect things is demand-based. Gordon believes that filling a population’s need is usually the fuel feeding the fire of any growth, adding amusingly (referencing the glass towers that rim Kent Avenue and perforate the surrounding blocks), “After all, Wall Street needs to be dressed…”

Brad, one half of the gorgeous Cadet enterprise, suggested the surge in demand is most probably a reflection of an insufficient assortment of offerings in the area. Without a doubt, Cadet will make shorter work of searching for well-made, simultaneously elegant and classic, well-priced men’s clothing. To top it off, they also have a Community-Conscience (my term for keeping it local): their factory is in Brooklyn.

Penultimate pioneers on the men’s apparel scene, the Brooklyn Tailors team began their bespoke operation way back in ’07, out of their apartment, opening their storefront in 2011. Client services rep Justin and I talked about the flurry of haberdashery-esque activity. His take is that the male population that arrived here during the first wave of gentrification arrived young; they have since matured and recognize the need for classic, expertly fit clothes with a superior make. Brooklyn Tailors offer both ready-to-wear and bespoke services to fill this need, and they are clearly doing very well. While I chatted (and shopped!) there was at least one client happily waiting outside the elegant little space while Daniel finished fitting an earlier appointment, and Brenna worked with another client finalizing the fabric details of his bespoke order. I mentioned to Jacob that with their volume of business (evident not only from the bodies in the room but also from the full rail of suit bags identified with handwritten order numbers, suspended wall-to-wall near the ceiling), it is a good thing they are a bit off the beaten path. Justin agreed; their goal is to provide design and service of equally high quality, a mission that could not be managed with throngs of “shoppers” milling in and out.

Ad Hoc opened its doors in 2011. I asked shopkeeper Ally about the uptick in foot traffic due to the neighborhood becoming a shopping destination. She observes that, while it has brought more people to the area, the broader swath is not necessarily a focused consumer base. She refers to Ad Hoc’s assortment as being a curated blend of vintage and new production that, hopefully, has the feel of looking through a good friend’s closet, checking out “stuff” of theirs you’d like to wear. I detected concern that the population this appeals to is perhaps shifting. She reflects that a lot of the increased traffic consists of folks coming to shop from outside the neighborhood, or newly arrived residents. Although they’re curious and want to feel as if they know the old artist vibe, there’s so little evidence of it anymore. So they’re more likely to shop at any of the stores, rather than at specific stores. Ad Hoc’s décor is best described as thoroughly authentic, reflecting the neighborhood of yore, sporting the feel of found furniture and spare embellishments, and leaving key aspects untouched, like the wainscoting and linoleum floor tiles.

Woman in men’s clothes, all from HOLLANDER & LEXER.

So if there aren’t more males here than females, and it isn’t that males suddenly are more flush than they’ve been since the depression/recession began, then the reason for the sudden flourish of male-assortment shops is most likely a confluence of three factors: 1) a bigger population in general equalling increased retail opportunity of any type, 2) reduced risk for new arrivals on the men’s retail scene due to the trail being well-blazed by the likes of Alter, Hollander & Lexer, and Brooklyn Tailors, and 3) a “maturing” of males generally, an exponential dial-up from the early ’90s male psyche, one that broke down barriers to dressing well, and enjoying it, and making it the birthright of any male, whether he be metro, homo, or heterosexual. This historic shift took male shopping and preening—openly and with enthusiasm—well past the straight/gay question.

When studying trends, you examine three levels of behavior: what was happening, what is happening, and what will happen. On what might be next retail-wise for this area, Justin of HW Carter & Sons offered the interesting statistic that 40% of his customers are women. That generated an initial assumption that females are shopping for the males in their lives, but something about his response caused me to infer that Justin was suggesting that, at some point, women may be shopping the assortment for themselves.

HOLLANDER & LEXER Indigo Pants, Indigo Vest, RJ Shirt in black & white stripe, Indigo Blazer, Leather Skinny Belt, Rosario Tie with print. MALE MODEL & STYLING FOR HOLLANDER & LEXER: MANNY LEMUS

The whole androgyny and unisex wardrobe idea is, in fact, the next white space I perceive. An indication of a bubble (not nearly an actual bubble yet, but a hint of a potential for a bubble) is blistering. We saw it in Hedi Slimane’s debut collection for Saint Laurent Homme Fall 2013, a unisex collection. Both male and female models walked the same runway wearing the same clothes. And there is also the model Andrej Pejic, a beautiful and handsome person, equally male and female in energy, with an utterly indiscernible gender while modeling, unless you are aware of his renown. In 2011, Pejic ranked simultaneously in the Top 50 Male Models list and FHM magazine’s The 100 Sexiest Women in the World.

The Saint Laurent Homme show was striking and alienating in many respects, as runway generally is. Even so, one can’t help but imagine just slightly more commercial iterations of such clothing, and where shops that feature truly unisex assortments might make their home. Ten bucks says there will be one right here in Williamsburg—sooner rather than later.

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