By Rudy Arispe ’97 BA
Abe Cortez was tending business as usual at Paris Hatters in downtown San Antonio on another sweltering August afternoon last year with temperatures hovering around 105. So he thought it rather odd when a customer, who had just walked in off the street, was wearing a red jogging suit zipped all the way up to his neck, hood over his head, and his face partially covered by sunglasses.
“He wouldn’t say very much,” said Cortez. “He would just point to a hat and say, ‘How many colors does this one come in a 7-1/2?’”
As Cortez, a 1978 bachelor of business administration graduate of what was then Incarnate Word College, got a closer look at the man’s face and listened to his distinguished graveled voice, he finally recognized the hooded stranger, who had come in with an entourage. It was rock star Bob Dylan.
“He bought six hats,” Cortez continued. “About a month later, he came out in a TV commercial for iTunes. He was sitting on a stool with a black hat. I said, ‘Ah, that’s my hat.’”
Such star encounters have become the norm for the 60 year-old owner of Paris Hatters, who in the late 1960s began working in the family-owned business, which opened in 1917. The “Who’s Who” roster of celebrities, who have stepped foot inside the small, cramped shop at 119 Broadway to purchase one of the finely-crafted Stetsons, could fill a Hollywood theater.
And as the hat has been passed from generation to generation, each has taken care of the hottest celebrities of their day. For instance, Cortez has assisted Tommy Lee Jones, Eric Clapton, Kid Rock, Don King, Paul McCartney, Matt Damon, Johnny and June Cash, and Merle Haggard; his father had the pleasure of fitting President Lyndon Johnson, Dean Martin, Bob Hope, and King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, to name just a few.
“I used to get nervous at first,” Cortez said, “but not anymore.”
Paris Hatters’ reputation for excellent customer service and fitting the heads of celebrities has certainly helped business. Last year, they sold just over 15,000 hats ranging from $20 to $7,500.
Hats, Cortez said, have distinct personalities and should be fitted appropriately to the wearer, which begins with fitting a person according to their height, shoulder width and weight. “I can spot a guy walking across the street and tell whether a hat fits well or if it fits him like an umbrella,” he said.
Which, by the way, it all starts with a basic rule: The bigger the person, the wider the brim; the smaller the person, the smaller the brim.
There’s a process to properly fitting a customer. First, Cortez or one of his three employees will ask what they plan to use it for – dress, casual, backpacking, golf, ranching? Then they measure for size, which range from 6-1/2 to size 8. After determining the customer’s budget, they work to choose the perfect hat, which can be custom-fitted, purchased and worn out the door that same day.
The most popular style being worn today by men is the fedora, Cortez adds. (Think Johnny Depp.) “Whatever they’re wearing in Hollywood drives the market.”
In business now for 97 years, little seems to have changed inside the shop with its distinct smell of leather, checkered floor, antique wooden hat blocks, hat steamer and row upon row of cowboy hats, fedoras, golf hats and caps in all shapes and sizes. Lucchese and Dan Post cowboy boots also line the shelves.
Cortez still uses a 1912 cash register that customers find amusing – and one that Mike Wolfe of the antique road show, “American Pickers,” wanted to purchase.
“We had an electronic one, but we had a power surge and it went out,” he said. “So we’ve just always used this one. People like to see the crank.”
Cortez now works alongside his daughter, Alexandra, who is being groomed to take over the business one day. He is proud to tell you that Paris Hatters has been named the No. 1 Stetson retailer in the country.
His client list ranges from everyday people who walk in off the street to many celebrities and dignitaries. The latter includes former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower; musicians Dwight Yoakum and Chris Isaak; opera great Luciano Pavarotti; businessman and former presidential candidate Ross Perot; and even Pope John Paul II.
“It’s an interesting business,” Cortez said. “You never know who’s going to walk in.”
For more information, visit www.parishatters.com.