At The Drop Of A Hat
12/07/2016 08:19AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: Colby Hebert Chapeaux [15 Images] Click any image to expand.
Colby Hebert Creates Custom Chapeaux
By Shanna Perkins
Meander down the rabbit hole. Just where the Saint Peter’s Catholic Church begins to cast its stately shadow down Church Alley is where you’ll find the Mad Hatter…or rather, the Cajun Hatter. Colby Hebert’s hat shop, Colby Hebert Chapeaux, is tucked neatly inside of one of the alley’s corners. Behind the door, candelabras, vintage hats and assorted oddities freckle the space while “Dream a Little Dream of Me” croons out from a crackling record player. A mélange of lingering fragrances, like leather and rich pipe tobacco, usher in a sense of yesteryear and grandiose.
But as can be imagined, one doesn’t wake up a hat maker with a quaint shop nestled in a historic alley. The New Iberia native’s path was winding, but always theatrical.
“One day, I decided I wanted to get into the film industry,” Hebert explains, looking out from beneath the stiff brim of a distressed hat. “It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time and finally decided to give it a shot. I started working and had four or five background roles. Then, I began helping a friend of mine who was producing a film in Slidell and I ended up working as a costume assistant on that film.”
Between 2014 and 2015, Hebert worked in the costume department for eight different films. He began to unintentionally transition away from acting and delve deeper into costumes. All the while, Hebert was garnering attention on set for his unique sense of style, more specifically, his hats.
“Fashion is something that I’ve been interested in since I was very young,” Hebert explains. “Anything that I could wear that could bring about something that was outside of myself, was something I was drawn to – I’ve always been attracted to the idea of costumes. For me, when it came to something I could wear in my day-to-day life that was somewhat similar to a costume, it was a hat. I’ve always been infatuated with them. I started to develop this image of ‘the guy with the hats.’”
As Hebert was working with costumes for films and gaining a reputation as the hat guy, his detailed eye for fashion and creative spirit were, unbeknownst to him, shining a light on a new career path. And one day he had, as he refers to it, the light bulb moment – hat making – he would be a hatter. It soon became clear that making the decision to design derbies would be the easiest part of his venture.
“Getting into this industry was incredibly difficult,” he confesses. “I had an idea that it would be challenging, but I assumed the tough part would be acquiring the knowledge and the materials. It turned out that my biggest hurdle was getting other hat makers to share their knowledge with me. I had many discouraging conversations.”
Not one to be easily detoured, Hebert steadfastly researched the craft and continued to contact hat makers across the country and internationally. While he was scouring the Internet for hat making materials, he ran across a traditional hat maker in Salt Lake City by the name of Jim Whittington, the man at the helm of J.W. Hats. Shortly into Hebert’s phone conversation with the 80-year-old craftsman, Whittington invited Hebert to come to Salt Lake City to witness the process first hand.
“I almost immediately bought a plane ticket,” Hebert laughs. “While I was there, in his shop and at his home, all of the puzzle pieces that I had accumulated through my research started to fall into place. I was able to practice there and have a hands on experience. And, I gained a mentor. That part of the process was priceless.”
Hebert returned home with newly found knowledge and confidence, but one question remained, where to set up shop? He was still unsure if Colby Hebert Chapeaux would find its home in the city he was living in at the time, New Orleans, or his home town, New Iberia. In the end the siren song of the murky bayou he grew up on called to him too loudly to ignore.
“I’m very highly influenced by my culture,” he says pointing to a fleur de lis pin adorning one of his hats. “We can go on and on about the joie de vivre and all of that, but at the end of the day, my soul is deeply welded into South Louisiana. The way that our culture is expressed through our cuisine and music, it’s so deep and it’s so rich.”
His infatuation with his culture has inspired a quest to incorporate elements that reflect Acadiana in his work. He recounts his monthly trips to the Atchafalaya Basin searching for inspiration, collecting chipped shells, Spanish moss and bits of cypress that he can incorporate into his designs. Hebert has an arsenal of techniques that give his hats a deeply distressed and worn quality, which in itself is derivative of the Cajun spirit. The overall appearance of the hats Hebert creates is unique to its future owner’s whims.
“When anyone comes into my shop for a consultation, first and foremost, they’re offered a glass of wine,” Hebert says as the church bells of Saint Peter’s chime. “Then, they can look through my records and pick one out to play while we sit down, talk and become friends. We talk about their personal style and what they’re looking for. They look at my portfolio, and that also has images of other hat makers’ work that really appeal to me and reflect what I might want to do.”
Hebert walks around his work space explaining the hat making process. He tries on a multitude of hats, discussing textures and differences in shapes and weight – western, dress. He bandies about the names of hat makers, Nick Fouquet and Willie Roberts, as if he’s talking about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. His skull-ring clad hand shows the variance in felts; he carries beaver and rabbit and a combination of the two. The unique execution of design and passion he puts into each hat has attracted a varied clientele.
“In the beginning, I was very curious to see how my clientele would develop, but it’s everybody!” he exclaims. “It almost completely equal men and women. It’s also just as many young people as it is older generations. Every client is so interesting and different. I have some people who are very open to letting me get really creative. Then, others know exactly what they want. But, those clients give me the challenge of creating something that someone imagined in their head.”
Hebert recounts the times he’s made custom hats for clients who didn’t consider themselves to be hat people. He details the experience of placing the custom work on their heads and watching their faces light up with excitement. It’s moments like these and the long hours spent in his little corner of Church Alley that have made hat making an extension of who Hebert is.
“I’ve put everything into this and it’s become something more than I ever imagined,” Hebert professes. “It’s become my direct focus and passion. I think hats are one of the most elegant parts of fashion. I think they’re the pinnacle of style. I’m doing what I can to bring it back and have more people wearing hats.”