HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Reginald Corbitt has a big head. Literally. A size-eight cranium. If we’re talking small-medium-large increments, he’s a double extra-large. Growing up in Huntsville, it was a struggle for Corbitt to find many hats in his size.
Even so, hats became a signature look for him. To the extent that while attending Lee High School some referred to him as “Reggie, the one with the hats.” (There were two Reggies in their circle.) After Corbitt’s family moved to Oklahoma, it wasn’t uncommon for folks there to know him as “The Hat Dude.”
“Hats were always something I could add as an extra element to my outfit and my style,” Corbitt says. “And it was something that just stood out the most. The first thing that people would notice was the hat that I was wearing.”
When he was actually able to find more hats his size — and we’re talking fedora, bowler, porkpie type headwear — they often weren’t available in the colors he wanted. The rest of Corbitt grew to match his big head. At 6-foot-two and stout, he worked in physical security, investigations and personal protection.
While residing in Washington D.C., and still never quite satisfied with hat options in his size, he decided to learn how to make hats. An acquaintance connected Corbitt with a local milliner whose hattery had recently closed. During a few in-person sessions, that milliner showed him the basics. Corbitt took it from there, making fedoras and other hats at his home in his spare time. He continued to learn the craft on his own, through experience and watching YouTube tutorials.
After first Corbitt just made hats for himself. He started wearing those hats when he went out and people, friends and strangers alike, often complimented him on them. “People were literally buying them right off my head,” Corbitt says. He started selling more hats to friends and family via social media, and kept more than a few for himself too. Returning back to Huntsville, he dedicated a wall of his home to his hats, including around 30 of his own creation. He set up a workshop in his basement.
Now, about four and a half years after he started making hats, Corbitt owns and operates Nathan Mason Hats, a venture named for his sons. He’s gone full-time, fashioning custom-made hats customers order from his website, nathanmasonhats.com, and at a brick and mortar shop on the first floor of local shopping mall Parkway Place.
At first, Parkway Place was going to be a short-term pop-up. “But then the response in Huntsville has been so great we decided to stick around,” Corbitt says. “People have been saying they’re excited they no longer have to go to Nashville or Atlanta for hats.” Nathan Mason Hats is staying at Parkway Place through January — hello, holiday shoppers — and after that Corbitt wants to open an appointment-store somewhere in the area. The shop’s current hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 12 to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Interest in Nathan Mason Hats got a boost when renown Athens-based record-producer/musician Kelvin Wooten shared photos on social media of some cool hats Corbitt had made for him, including a military-green number with a quail feather tucked into the hat’s copper-colored band.
“A hat can say a lot about who you are, personality-wise,” Wooten says. “And if I put that hat on with this outfit, it just totally changes the way I walk, my mood, everything.” Wooten gravitates to fedoras generally, especially if he’s doing a jazz gig. If he’s doing hip-hop, he might go for a trucker hat or something more casual like that. Wooten says he loves the hats Corbitt makes because “he builds them from the ground up.” Back when Wooten was growing up, both his grandfathers frequently wore hats, adding to the appeal now for him.
Hats were a thing in Corbitt’s family too. A framed photo of his great grandfather wearing a hat adorns one of the walls at the Nathan Mason Hats shop. And the beat goes on. Another framed photo on that same wall in the shop depicts Corbitt’s young son wearing a hat. The actual hats on display at Nathan Mason run the gamut of looks from jazzy to rockstar to hipster to foxy. For men and for women. “Hats are sort of like music, a thing everybody enjoys and can relate to,” Corbitt says. “I’ve been getting every age and every demographic coming in here.”
Some of the most requested colors for Nathan Mason Hats include “silver belly,” camel, black and pecan. Fedoras and other center-creased (think vintage gangster look) as well as styles called “cattleman cruiser” and “the gambler” sell well. They’re available in a variety of brim widths. If a customer is unsure what look is right for them, Corbitt will ask how they plan to style the hat, which color they’re feeling, etc. “And sometimes I have to inspire them,” Corbitt says, “and let them know, ‘Hey, this is a good look for you. Let’s try this on. This color works for you.’” A hat can be further personalized with a hat-band, which are sewn in store, and/or feathers and even snakeskin details.
To get the ideal fit, Corbitt measures in-store customer’s heads using a halo-shaped device that evokes some sci-fi brain-controller. It takes him about two or three days to make one hat, but if there are 20 in the queue, turnaround time might be around four or six weeks. The actual making of a hat starts with steaming an unshaped blank, which loosens the fibers and allows Corbitt to stretch the hat to a custom fit and then mold it to a hat block (which come in different heights, sizes and flanges) to form to the desired shape. After that, it takes about 24 to 48 hours for a hat to dry.
Nathan Mason custom hats start at $395 for — animal lovers, avert your eyes — 100 percent rabbit fur felt. The cost goes up to $525 for a 50/50 beaver fur and rabbit fur blend, and Corbitt says these hats can last about 50 years with proper care. The “Maybach of hats” though is 100 percent beaver fur, which is velvety and resilient. Those run $750 a pop. Corbitt can also do a custom Panama straw hat, a breathable go-to for warmer months, for $275. “Most of my orders are coming from Huntsville, which makes me feel like I’m in the right place,” Corbitt says.
Corbitt says the biggest difference between his hats and a mass produced hat one might purchase at a Target department store is the feel and quality. “Most hats in those stores are going to be a blend of wool and polyester, and they’re going to be floppy.”
Some customers come to Corbitt with photos of a celeb wearing a hat, wanting to cop that same look. “Something they saw in an old classic movie,” Corbitt says. “Or maybe something they saw Cam Newton wear,” referring to the NFL quarterback known to dress colorfully off the field.
Area resident Buz White, who works in sales, wanted Corbitt to make him a leopard-print flat-brim hat similar to one White had seen football great Deion Sanders wear in photos. (White isn’t a huge Sanders fan, he just thought the hat looked awesome.) Corbitt tricked the look out with purple silk lining and a rattlesnake skin headband. White says he usually pairs his Nathan Mason hat with a T-shirt and jeans. “The hat turned out perfectly. No one else has one exactly like it,” White says. “And it’s a conversation piece too: ‘Hey man, where’d you get that hat?’”