John Fish Grew Up a Midwestern Skate Punk. How’d He End Up In Portland Making Classic Bespoke Hats?

The 30-year-old quickly mastered the intricate techniques of headwear’s pre-war golden age without any training or apprenticeship.

(Aubrey Janelle)

There are no signs identifying the outpost of the Folklore Hat Company, but the point comes across regardless.

The fashionably distressed Northeast Killingsworth storefront looks no more like the studio of a master hat maker than a phrenology clinic or a steampunk detective agency. The sepia-tinged interiors are awash in vintage taxidermy, pre-war machinery and FDR-era cultural detritus. Glancing around, it's clear owner John Fish is far less concerned with showcasing his wares than demonstrating how seamlessly they fit the milieu.

"I was a skateboarding kid, but I've worn hats ever since stealing my dad's fedoras," he says. "You can't really go wrong keeping things classic."

Fish left Michigan's Upper Peninsula for Portland at the height of the 2010 recession and, failing to land work as a designer, immersed himself within the dying trade of hat craft. Somehow, the 30-year-old quickly mastered the intricate techniques of headwear's pre-war golden age without any training or apprenticeship.

Fish's embrace of the greatest generation's aesthetic might seem at odds with his skate-punk youth. But growing up where he did, in a town that hadn't any stores beyond Ace Hardware and Shopko, stylistic distinctions weren't so slavishly followed.

"I always had that DIY, make-your-own-clothes or artwork thing and became really interested in the brands the skateboarders were wearing. But I wouldn't say I necessarily dressed like a skateboarder all the time," he says. "I'd always been really into antiques, so it felt like I was being pulled in two different direction when I was young. But it's really the same shit, you know? I just blended the skateboard thing with old-school fashion."

(Aubrey Janelle)

That fondness for antiques, much as anything, sparked his current career. In particular, his lingering fascination with pre-war hat blocks—his collection currently numbers around 300— spurred Fish to leap blindly into a furious investigation of self-taught hat craft.

Fish acknowledges the superiority of hats produced before the industry's stark '60s-era downturn. He refuses to utilize, for example, modern ribbons or vegan pelts. Still, despite his devout reverence to the stylistic restraint of yesteryear, he prides himself on respecting the tastes of a wildly variable clientele.

"If they really don't know, I can suggest some different things based on their facial structure, but I'll build whatever somebody wants," Fish says. "There's a lot of hatters that won't stray from being classic, but in my eyes, I'm a custom hat maker. I had somebody ask me to make a hat that doubled as a bird cage because he wanted to keep his parakeet in the crown."

That blend of adaptability and uncompromising technique has earned Fish the patronage of such local luminaries as the Decemberists' Chris Funk and legendary Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, who helped design Folklore's first two-tone fedora. Along with partnerships with Portland clothing line Hovden and handcrafted boutique Red House Collective, the company's international market keeps broadening, selling to Canada, Mexico, Japan and the Netherlands.

"I'm pretty much only on Instagram, so my clientele has been mostly younger, but word's getting out," Fish says. "I'm starting to see people of all ages and from all walks of life."

For the moment, Fish is focused on expanding the scope of his offerings. In addition to T-shirts and leather goods, he's collaborating with a friend on a sturdy denim chore coat, and the prototype for a piece of carry-on luggage, modeled after the classic medical bag, is nearly finished.

As for the hats themselves, Folklore seems to have reached a tipping point. Fish has finally found an American source of new blocks, and discussions are underway with ribbon manufacturers to provide vintage-quality materials. Following a New York trunk show this autumn, he'll scour the East Coast's abandoned manufacturing hubs for vintage equipment he can repair or repurpose, with the ultimate goal of eventually opening a hat factory and showroom here in town.

"Hats really have come back," Fish says. "It's kind of weird that some people consider them to be trendy. Madonna and Pharrell wear hats to the Grammys. That gets people thinking about them again, but they're much more traditional. Hats have never really fallen out of style, you know? The industry might fluctuate, but musicians, actors, people on the fringe of fashion—they never stopped wearing hats."

SHOP: Folklore Hat Company, 2926 NE Killingsworth St., 906-281-6961, 11 am-5 pm Monday-Saturday. Follow on Instagram @thisisfolklore.

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