Why Celebrities Pay Thousands of Dollars for This Colorado Couple’s Cowboy Hats
The husband-and-wife owners of Colorado Hats use both new technology and old-school construction methods to make high-end custom cowboy hats that draw customers from miles away. This story originally appeared on Inc.com.
Editor’s note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
The mountains are imperious.
The tallest, Longs Peak, rises to 14,259 feet. Travelers pass from biome to biome until, rising above the timberline, they find themselves in an honest-to-God tundra where the only plants are knee-high shrubs. Everything is coated in ice and snow, even during the summer. From that height, looking out across a horizon unimpeded by trees is a transcendent experience.
Estes Park, Colorado, rests about 7,000 feet below in a heavily forested valley full of wildlife. It’s a town of approximately 6,000 people, best known for the headquarters of Rocky Mountain National Park. Ted and Susan Williams, co-owners and operators of Colorado Hats, have been making cowboy hats there for 17 years. Working alone, with no employees, they are among the few businesses still crafting cowboy hats by hand.
Some people find the husband-and-wife team by word of mouth. Others wander in off the street. The 2,200-square-foot storefront sits on a narrow walkway between the edge of a strip mall and a waist-high stone wall that protects passersby from falling into a river. A blue-and-white sign faces the entrance to the walkway. It reads: “Hats.”
Despite its low profile, Colorado Hats, with annual revenue of $180,000, has developed an almost cult following. Ninety percent of business comes from outside the town, and celebrity sightings are not uncommon. Trevor Siemian, the Denver Broncos starting quarterback, came by in September. Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants, visited before a nearby family wedding. Ralph Lauren and his wife have bought hats there. “He made me feel good about what I do,” says Ted Williams of his more famous apparel industry colleague.
The business is also a community fixture. There’s a barber’s chair that accommodates customers getting their heads measured and locals stopping in to indulge in one of Ted Williams’s favorite pastimes: talking politics. Todd Jirsa, the mayor of Estes Park, often drops by. He’s one of Williams’s best friends: They used to coach youth baseball together. “By the time you spend just two minutes talking to Ted, you’re his friend,” Jirsa says. “You’re his family.”
But people don’t come here to spot celebrities. Most don’t even come for the conversation. Rather, they come to this store to buy sturdy, custom-made hats, for which some will pay thousands of dollars. In this region where people labor long hours outdoors under the sun in thin mountain air, they need hats for protection. They need hats because they are Coloradans.
From the belly of the beaver
For Ted and Susan Williams, Colorado Hats is a second life. He is 65. She is 69. Before retirement, Ted was a civil engineer, specializing in wastewater plant infrastructure. Susan was the stay-at-home mom of five daughters. The couple used to live in nearby Fort Collins, then moved to Durango on the state’s southern edge. There they ran a shop called the Colorado Cowboy Company that sold hats, boots, saddles, and related paraphernalia. They worked with a milliner, a cobbler, and a saddler to stock their store.
It was in Durango that the Williamses started thinking about making hats themselves. They did research, made a few hats, and went to some trade shows. Over the next half-decade, they got better and better at it. While most people wore cowboy hats as fashion statements, the Williamses focused on products for working people: ranchers and farmers who might pass their hats down from generation to generation. “Grampa used to wear these,” Williams remembers thinking about his own family and childhood. “We wore them because they kept the sun off you. That resonated with us very strongly. It gave us a mission.”
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