If it wasn’t for the banner suspended on the wall of the nondescript building at 1240 Petaluma Hill Road, you might very well guess it was just another auto repair shop. Across the street, you can get a smog inspection on the cheap; next door, mechanics in grease-splattered overalls are busy changing tires.
Here, just below the intersection of Santa Rosa Avenue and Petaluma Hill Road, you can get a front end alignment or a tune up pretty much anywhere you look. But now you can also come here for something else — a very special hat.
Finding The Hattery, a newly opened hat factory, in these engine environs is not the anomaly it may once have seemed. A couple of blocks north, Santa Rosa’s trendy SOFA district continues to expand: a concrete-chic restaurant here, a mid-century modern motel there, a few art galleries interspersed in between. Little by little, the area is changing.
The Hattery’s interior contrasts with the building’s flat-faced, less than impressive exterior. From the outside, the 6,300-square-foot warehouse looks deceptively small; inside, it’s airy and spacious. Tall windows line the walls. Sleek lines combine with antique furniture. In every room, there are vintage accents — wooden head blocks on shelves and fine hats in glass displays.
The front space of The Hattery serves as a milliner’s workshop, complete with long, narrow tables and a retro reading nook. In the back, antique machinery — turn-of-the-century presses and molds — share the factory floor with modern hat-making equipment. A few steps down the hall, an expansive storage room is filled with hats stacked from floor to ceiling.
Presiding over this hat wonderland is mother-and-daughter team Jennifer and Elizabeth Webley.
Jennifer Webley has been mad about hats since she was a teen. Growing up in Nevada, she began frequenting thrift stores with her mom after her family ran into financial difficulties. It was here that she discovered the allure of vintage headwear.
“I kept running into friends of mine from high school and I was so embarrassed to be seen shopping at the thrift store that I pretended I had a passion for vintage things,” Webley recalls.
Her pretense soon developed into a real passion. By the time Webley graduated from high school, she had collected about 75 inexpensive hats. Webley’s prized collection of cheap hats was then to follow her around the world — first to Australia, where her mother was born and raised, next to South Africa, where she met her husband, John, and finally to Occidental, where the married couple settled down. This also turned out to be the place where Webley’s much traveled and cherished hat collection met its demise — in a moldy shed.
“From that experience I developed a little bit of an obsession,” says Webley and laughs. “I became determined to get those hats back.”
And so, while her husband — a technology entrepreneur — was building his business out of their west county garage, Webley embarked on her mission. Years went by, and her hat collection grew. Soon she had amassed “a huge amount of hats,” including vintage Diors, flamboyant Bes-Ben creations, fit-for-royalty fascinators by Philip Treacy, and — the pièce de résistance — Liberace’s bowler hat. By the time her kids began heading off for college, there was no space left for hat storage. A Santa Rosa hat shop seemed a rational solution. Why not share her hat collection with her customers?
When Webley opened Portobello Hats in 2011, hats were beginning to make a fashion comeback. Previously, decades of mostly bare heads had followed centuries of strict hat etiquette. Now, the hat was resurfacing — as a new means of expression.
“In a way, it is the new tattoo,” says Priscilla Royer, artistic director at high-end hat brand Maison Michel, in an interview with The New York Times.
“Thank you royal family for that,” Webley exclaims, “and now Meghan Markle is embracing hats, inspiring people in the U.S.”
As the interest in hats has grown, so has Webley’s hat collection. She recently purchased 8,000 vintage felt hats from Europe — Czech, Austrian, German and British. And against what Webley saw as her own better judgment, she also became the owner of the inventory of a well-known Ukiah hat business.
The Ukiah company, Shady Brady, was going out of business after its owner and founder, John Brady, died in June of last year. What Webley was most interested in was their antique millinery machines. But, after making a lowball offer which she thought would be rejected, she won the bid and ended up with much more than she had expected: 14,000 western-style straw hats, 150 molds and a dozen hat presses.
With more hats to her name than she could ever have imagined, the idea for The Hattery was born. Once Webley had procured a new space for the hats and machinery, her business-savvy daughter, Elizabeth, stepped in to help.
Elizabeth, who previously worked for a nonprofit in LA, began scaling what had been a 500-hat business to one of 20,000 plus. The building at 1240 Petaluma Hill Road, previously the home of Vee Twin Motorcycle Dealers, was soon transformed into a hat factory and workshop. Glued carpets were stripped from the floors, storage space was cleared and concrete floors polished. Elizabeth’s cousin, Tom, along with a few friends, then transported the entire Shady Brady inventory from a 20,000-square-foot Ukiah warehouse to the new Santa Rosa space — and Elizabeth set about organizing all of it.
The plans for The Hattery are ambitious. Shady Brady hats, a well-known brand to the Western hat-wearing public, are being sold online at Etsy and eBay and by sellers such as hatcountry.com. Elizabeth and Jennifer have organized millinery workshops via their website thehatterysc.com, including one with master hatmaker Wayne Wichern, and another on personal style coaching with Divine Makeovers. A seamstress has been hired and the hat-making side of the business is ramping up. The Hattery will open its retail doors September 28.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth dreams of one day opening a cafe in The Hattery space — entrepreneurial blood must run deep in her veins: her maternal grandmother ran an old-school tea shop between casinos in Nevada, her father’s garage business turned into several Telecom Valley ventures, her uncle, Gerard (Jennifer’s brother), owns a paella restaurant, her cousin, Tom, is opening a local brewery, and every year the whole family gets together to put on a Santa Rosa spectacle: Halloween at the McDonald Mansion (Jennifer and John’s home).
As for Jennifer, she says matter-of-factly: “I only have hats swirling around in my head.”
The Hattery, 1240 Petaluma Hill Road, Santa Rosa, 707-757-9971, thehatterysc.com.