By Brian Marchetti
Nestled at the eastern edge of Beverly, at 95th and Charles, a restored Chicago firehouse has become the headquarters and painstakingly designed manufacturing center for some of the world’s finest hats.
Optimo Hats, founded by Graham Thompson in late 1995, plans to celebrate 25 years of excellence, the festivities delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the release of a fully illustrated coffee table book and a continued dedication to craftsmanship that has reached customers all over the globe.
“We basically try to make the best hats in the world,” Thompson said. “We exist for the true enthusiast. Our clients appreciate craftsmanship and quality that lasts.”
While in high school, Thompson began searching for a fine hat to purchase for himself. He found Johnny’s Hat Shop at 79th and Racine, owned by long time hat maker, Johnny Tyus. Tyus became a mentor and showed Thompson that while the style of hats hadn’t changed, the quality of craftsmanship found in hats made in the 1930s through the 1950s had diminished.
In 1995, when Tyus announced his retirement, Thompson decided to pursue a career in hat making and opened Optimo Hats on 102nd and Western.
In order to ensure the highest standards, Thompson traveled all over the world to find the tools and equipment to manufacture Optimo’s high quality hats.
“It was a very long process,” Thompson said. “I had to travel to Europe every year. You need the right tools and ingredients. It’s a lot like fine cooking.”
His search for the perfect equipment for his trade has taken him to Italy, France, and Germany. Materials, like fine straw, come from Ecuador. High quality felt, milled from silver beaver, comes from Europe.
As Optimo Hats expanded, Thompson moved from the original shop on Western to a decommissioned firehouse at their current location on 95th Street. The award-winning renovation of the firehouse interior was designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
“The firehouse was vacant for six years,” Thompson said. “It needed a lot of renovation, but it is a solid building with a lot of integrity. It feels a lot like our brand.”
At the Beverly/Morgan Park location, extensively trained staff, some who have been with the company for 20 years, hand make all Optimo Hats. The hats are available in a variety of styles from the classic fedora, western, and pork pie.
Hats can be purchased at Optimo’s retail location in downtown Chicago at 51 W. Jackson or can be custom made. Costs range from $795 to $10,000.
Optimo hats have found their way on to the big screen, appearing in over 50 films, including the recent 2022 Paramount Pictures release, “Babylon,” with Brad Pitt donning the head wear.
While Thompson’s career has taken him all over the world, his roots remain firmly planted in Chicago and in particular, the Beverly area.
“This is a traditional South Side of Chicago business and we’re located right at the entrance to Beverly. Chicago is in our DNA,” Thompson said.
As a testament to that love for the city, one of Optimo’s best selling hats is the Chicago, a fedora designed not only with classic style in mind, but something durable, created to hold up to the harsh local weather.
Trends come in go, as in all facets of the clothing industry, but Optimo Hats plans to stay traditional in its design and manufacturing quality and attention to detail.
“We’re not old fashioned, we’re classic,” Thompson said.
As for the future, Optimo Hats will remain right where it all started, the city of Chicago, where a young Graham Thompson stepped into Johnny’s Place so many years ago.
“Chicago is a hat town. We’re looking forward to a long future right here in Chicago,” Thompson said.