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Last of Buffalo's master hatters has fitted Broadway, Hollywood stars

Chadwick Boseman is a feather in his cap.

So are Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale and Steve Buscemi.

All have worn custom-made hats from Buffalo's master hatter, professionally known as Gary White, but whose real name is Gary Witkowski.

Hat making may be a disappearing craft, but the Buffalo native's hats are still in demand after a 30-year career.

Witkowski's hats for men have been seen in award-winning movies, TV shows and Broadway productions. Audiences saw them in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" series and the movie "Marshall" filmed in Buffalo. His custom-designed hats will next be seen in Martin Scorsese's film "The Irishman," starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

"There is something about the mystique of the hat," Witkowski said. "It finishes off your wardrobe. It tells you something about the personality of a person. When someone puts a hat on, you finish the whole outfit right off and you make a statement by wearing the hat."

He makes the hats in an unlikely place – an unassuming shop at 1318 Broadway, at the corner of Schmarbeck Street. The sign says "The Custom Hatter," with references to "custom made hats, hat cleaning and blocking."

Gary Witkowski works with a hat at his shop on Broadway. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The shop is near a number of boarded-up buildings and is two doors down from a storefront church. The Central Terminal is several blocks away.

Witkowski charges at least $500 to $600 for a new hat, with wait times of seven to nine months. A complete renovation runs $395 and up.

"My love for it is the quality of the product that I create – and that the industry used to create, 40 to 50 years ago, before everything was mass-produced," he said.

In the neighborhood

Witkowski grew up in the same Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood as his store.

He was born one-half mile away on Lombard Street, in what was then an overwhelmingly Polish and Catholic neighborhood.

He recalls a bustling commercial district, anchored by Sattler's department store, just east of Fillmore Avenue, with furniture and clothing stores and restaurants, delis and neighborhood taverns. Residents could pick among three movie theaters – the Rivoli, the Roosevelt and the Lincoln.

"You could walk on Broadway from Bailey to downtown at 2 a.m. and no one would bother you," Witkowski said.

Witkowski, the son of a truck driver and homemaker, studied to be an electrician at Seneca Vocational High School and received a business degree at SUNY Buffalo State.

But he received his most important education at a job he took as a high school freshman.

Witkowski worked as a stock boy and then a hat salesman at Peller & Mure, on Delaware Avenue at West Tupper Street.

"It was the finest quality clothing store the city ever had," he said.

Witkowski flourished as a hat salesman.

One day, owner Roy Peller and company president Larry Jay asked him to change his name, thinking his Polish name could be a detriment for high-end clients.

When Witkowski's father saw his business card with the name "Gary White," he stopped talking to his son for two months.

" 'Dad,' I tried to tell him, 'I'm trying to earn a living here,' " Witkowski said. "He thought I was ashamed of being Polish, but I wasn't."

Out on his own

While on a buying trip in New York City, Witkowski told Alan Goldberg, vice president of Dobbs, one of the top-line hat manufacturers, that he wanted to open his own hat store. Goldberg offered to supply him with a line of credit. But Witkowski surprised him by saying he wanted to make hats, not sell them.

"Mr. Goldberg looked at me with his bifocals on his nose, and said to me, 'You know what kid, I can count the people on one hand who do it and do it correctly worldwide,' " Witkowski said.

A year went by. Then Witkowski received a call from Goldberg on Christmas.

"He knew I was Polish, and he was Jewish," Witkowski said. "He said, 'Hey kid, I have a Christmas gift for you.' I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'I found somebody in Lynn, Massachusetts, who would like to teach somebody.' I said, 'Teach what?' And he said, 'Teach someone to make hats. That's why I'm calling you.' "

That began Witkowski's 10-year apprenticeship with hatter Henry Goldstein. Married with a young daughter, he would drive from Buffalo to Lynn over weekends and the off-day he had from Peller & Mure on Mondays.

He opened his first hat shop part-time across the street from his current location in the late-'80s, mainly cleaning and blocking hats. Witkowski said he learned technique by renovating thousands of hats over that time.

He stayed with Peller & Mure as a consultant, before leaving behind a 24-year career to operate his hat business full time.

For the first few years, virtually all of The Custom Hatter's customers were men from the neighborhood. Over time he developed a wider clientele, crafting and repairing numerous styles of hats, including fedoras, homburgs, coachmans, gamblers and three-point diamonds.

Witkowski bought the building across the street and thanks to word-of-mouth from costume designers and some media attention, Hollywood and Broadway came knocking.

A costume designer at the former Studio Arena Theatre helped by getting him involved with an off-Broadway production of "Cat in the Hat."

"Costume designers are a big community, but a small one for the ones who do the work, and do it correctly," he said.

The signature ribbon on a Gary White hat. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

'A dirty job'

In Witkowski's shop  – which he calls a "creative studio" – everything is handmade and hand-sewn.

Several machines in the back assist him with his work. Among them are a flanges machine that helps shape and set the brim; a manual hat blocking machine that stretches the hats using steam and heat; and a crown pouncer that removes excess fibers, makes velour and creates a smooth finish.

He wears chemical and dust ventilators for the coloring process, which involves using a finishing powder.

"It's a dirty job," Witkowski said. "The light colors are worse, because you have to use a bone pigment that goes all over the place. You also don't want to mix light and dark color pigments on the same day because you have to clean and degrease all of your machines, making it take twice as long."

Witkowski's hats have a custom satin lining that says "The Custom Hatter" and "God is on my right" in Latin. He has a signature bow, used from rolls of colored ribbon made of cotton rayon, cotton silk or bridal satin.

"The attention to detail I present to a client you can't get anywhere else," he said.

'Indiana Jones' 

Inside the store are photographs of movie stars and entertainers wearing hats. They help customers describe what they want.

Humphrey Bogart is shown wearing a classic fedora. Witkowski received a call from Lauren Bacall once, asking if he could replicate a particular Bogart hat used in a black-and-white movie. He was unable to determine with certainty what the actual color was since the studios didn't keep color documentation, so it didn't happen.

Many of the photographs are of people Witkowski has made hats for.

He made a hat for Bob Dylan, and Frank Sinatra's last three Cavanagh hats.

"I was the only guy in the country who could still do the special Cavanagh edge," he said.

Witkowski made the "Blues Brothers 2000" hats, and Harrison Ford donned one in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

Woody Allen has worn hats designed by Witkowski for personal use and for "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and the hatmaker's hats were seen in "The Godfather Part III."

Actor James Garner was even buried in a black felt hat with silver- and gold-braided trim Witkowski made for him.

Witkowski takes more joy in creating hats for Broadway than for films.

He produced hats for three Tony award-winners: "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Wonderful Town" and "Jersey Boys." Other plays include "Lend Me a Tenor" and "The Color Purple."

"Broadway is more fun to work on than motion picture work because I can be more creative with the colors, where if you do a film it has to be period-accurate," Witkowski said.

"My biggest thrill is when I get to correct the costume designers," he said. "When it comes to period accuracy and what colors were or weren't used, attention to detail is so important."

The most difficult hat he ever made was for the Broadway musical "Amour." It was a reversible hat with a dark burgundy bowler on one side and a gray fedora on the other created for a quick set and lighting change.

"It took me two weeks to make that hat," Witkowski said. "I don't think a hat like that was ever made before in the history of Broadway theater."

End in sight

Witkowski, who moved to West Seneca in 1993, had two apprentices years ago who didn't work out. His daughter, a psychologist, wasn't interested in getting into the business.

Without a successor, Witkowski said he plans to eventually take a costume designer's suggestion and sell the business to a movie studio.

"When I'm ready to close the shop, I'll take out an ad in Variety and put it up for bid intact for the motion picture industry," he said.

Gary Witkowski, known professionally as Gary White, washes the windows in the front of his shop on Broadway. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

But he's not rushing to do that.

"I"m still passionate about what I do," he said. "I feel very lucky to still practice and do my craft correctly."

So Witkowski will keep at his trade in his old neighborhood.

"If I was located on Elmwood Avenue, how much work would I get done?" Witkowski said. "People would constantly be coming through the doors saying, 'Where's that hatmaker?' "

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