For the first time ever, we’re offering an exclusive capsule of ten vintage Stetsons that have been meticulously restored and reborn as wearable works of art. Discover the story of the collection and get to know the artisan behind it.
Text: Andrew Bradbury
Photography: Tatsuro Nishimura, Rick Rodgers. Video: Rick Rodgers
Ben Fife’s career as a craftsman began almost by accident: Inspired by a pair of leather suspenders worn by Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, he created his own version—and a stranger offered to buy them off his back. Thinking he may be onto something, the 42-year-old Washington native founded Westward Leather Co. in Spokane in 2014, and his meticulously crafted shell cordovan wallets and other leather goods have been selling out ever since. Along the way, inspired by the patina and longevity of a beloved vintage Stetson in his personal collection, Fife added the art of vintage hat restoration to his repertoire, which we’ve put to good use with The Upcycle Collection, a new capsule of ten vintage Stetsons from 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, that have been restored and reimagined as wearable works of art.
To create this collection, Fife first crafted individual hat blocks from raw linden wood, and after cleaning and steaming the vintage felts, he reshaped them into all-new reimagined profiles and adorned them with textiles from his personal globally-sourced collection. The resulting hats are truly one-of-a-kind, each with its own personality and story. There are, as Fife puts it, “versatile crossovers that are groomed for Sunday service as much as a Mezcal happy hour,” sleek, ‘70s-inspired flat brims that are “striking on street or stage,” and a tall-crowned bohemian showstopper that “recalls the commanding profiles of early 1900s Stetsons.”
We talked with Fife about what inspired the collection, how he chose the vintage felts to upcycle and his hopes for the hats once they find their way to a new home.
What first inspired your love of vintage headwear?
In 2011, my wife and I were going to live off the grid in Alaska for a while and in a vintage shop was this beautiful old Stetson from the 1940s—an Open Road. It fit me perfectly. and I thought this is a great companion for this adventure I’m about to go on. I wore the hell out of it for the next eight years, doing guide work, bartending, just day-to-day life out in the country. It made me aware of how much I wanted to prolong the life of it. So that was the inspiration to figure out how to work with this craft. With Stetson being one of the most iconic heritage brands in our country, with such a rich history, this particular capsule was informed by those elements.
Tell us about the upcycling process. What are some of the steps involved from the initial find to the finished piece?
It’s taking everything off and out of the hat, cleaning and steaming it until the felt is like a new canvas. From there I reimagine what this vintage hat will be as its next life. That’s the evolution of it for me. It turns into making a brand-new hat utilizing a felt that still has plenty of life left in it and that has a story somehow intact into the memory of it, which I think adds an element of intrigue and mystique and beauty to the process.
There are a lot of vintage hats out there, what special characteristics drew you to these particular hats?
I’m looking for potential—something I like the weight of. I like when there’s some patina to the felt that comes with decades of time and wear. Then some of the hats that I find, you can tell haven’t been worn enough!
What do you notice about the quality and craftsmanship of these vintage Stetsons?
There’s a density to these felts that you can feel. You can really feel the effort that was put into making them. Stetson always trying to set the bar in terms of quality is very apparent in these vintage felts.
There are a variety of profile styles within the collection. What inspired the different shapes?
The shapes pay homage to earlier Stetson styles, but also to an idea of a lifestyle that a Stetson hat could have lived. I made each of the hat blocks for this collection by hand which harkens back to the earliest days of hat making.
What are some of the materials you used for the hat bands and other style accents? How did you go about sourcing them?
I love collecting things during travels, so a lot of these textiles I’ve had in my possession for over a decade or beyond. Vintage fabrics from all over the world. I think I enjoy bringing those things in because the hat itself in terms of a cultural phenomenon is so widespread and there’s so much variety across cultures and each one kind of serves its own purpose. I’m fascinated by how universal and diverse hats are. So there’s that global influence. Plus, hats are made to travel.
Who do you imagine wearing these hats?
I really hope that whoever each hat speaks to the most finds it. Someone who’s going to put life into it and let it become their own.
What should customers know about purchasing an upcycled hat?
Along with the character that it comes with out of the box you should expect it to start to absorb and inhabit your own character. Be ready to live into that and let that happen. These felts have been used, but they’ve got plenty of life left in them—they’re not delicate. They’re ready. Ready for living.
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