Hats by Neysha De León: Nostalgic and Eco-Friendly

  • Neysha De León makes a custom hat in her Williamsburg studio. (Photos by Camille A. Padilla Dalmau for Voices of NY)

The brown leather tag of my new hat has the stamp of a Ford Model A ’31 – the car that Neysha De León’s father has owned since 1988. The president and longtime member of the Antique Cars Club of Puerto Rico would drive his family around the island in caravans or on weekend road trips, and his daughter designed her brand around it as a remembrance of her youth.

Images of the car can also be seen in her studio – the loft of a men’s clothing store on Grand Street between Bedford and Driggs avenues in Williamsburg – where I met Neysha on a Saturday afternoon after she finished her shift as a restaurant hostess in SoHo.

The space is filled with antiques such as wooden hat molds, a black metal sewing machine, and of course, dozens and dozens of hats.

Neysha fell in love with the process of hat-making three years ago when she took a course in leather manipulation and millinery techniques while getting her BFA in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. For her thesis, she used these skills to create a handwoven upcycled leather vest and a coat with upcycled wool and leather materials.

During the weekdays, she runs store operations for Reformation SoHo, an eco-friendly fashion brand that focuses on using sustainable methods and materials.

Neysha told me in Spanish that she began upcycling, or reusing, old headwear at her apartment about a year and a half ago. “I had a lot of hats, mostly old, and I said to myself these can be reworked as new ones. I found more potential in the vintage church hats,” she said.

Now an admitted hat hoarder, Neysha seems to revel in stripping rotten lace or big velvet flowers off a vintage hat, reducing it to its simplest form.

“They look sweet by themselves,” she said in English as she tried one on.

She asked me what type of hats I wore and what I wanted. It was hard to explain, so she measured my head, 21 1/2 inches, small according to Neysha, and I proceeded to try any hat I could get my hands on.

I was searching for a reporter’s hat. That is, something I could wear every day with confidence that would feed my old-school journalist soul.

I couldn’t decide between two fedoras: faux felt blends, one brown and the other navy blue, that Neysha got from an estate sale of deadstock hats. Deadstock are large quantities of clothes that  were never sold to or used by consumers before being removed from store inventory, or that has been used but kept in good condition.

I opt for the blue, thinking it would match more outfits. She suggested a teardrop shape and molded it quickly on a block of wood with her hands to show me how it would look.

After picking the crown shape, I scanned her collection of ribbons and bands. I chose a threaded black and red leather band to give it a special touch.

The hat is more than a vintage or hipster fad to me. Having someone who tweeted climate change is a hoax in the White House has made me think more about the choices I can make to reduce my carbon footprint.

The two major causes of greenhouse emissions in the garment industry are use phase care (washing, drying, ironing) and the raw material production, according to a study by BSR, “Apparel Industry Life Cycle Carbon Mapping.”

Data: “Apparel Industry Life Cycle Carbon Mapping,” report by Business for Social Responsibility

As shown, 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the life cycle of a garment is caused by the combination of energy used in washing, drying, and ironing. I probably won’t wash, dry, or iron my hat but, fiber production being the second clothing GHG emitter in the supply chain, I can reduce my carbon footprint by using materials that are already out there.

The price point of Neysha’s handmade custom hats start at $150 and can go as high as $500 or more depending on felt quality, trims materials used, and labor time.

Neysha rented her studio around October of 2015 and has sold more than 50 hats to customers ranging from working-class women and ladies from the antique cars club in Puerto Rico to male musicians in Brooklyn. While some clients like myself come for a full service, others bring an old hat that needs some TLC.

One of her best-sellers this past winter was an everyday felt beanie – the green hat she’s wearing in her portrait. Some of her one-of-a-kind pieces end up being part of press pulls, where stylists rent accessories for photo shoots, and those usually end up being sold at the shoot.

Right now Neysha only takes clients by appointment, but her plan is to at some point offer capital collections, or smaller collections, of limited-edition hats. She will do this by sourcing them separately and finding a common thread such as color or fabric. Part of this expansion is collaborating with another artist to find a bigger, more traditional warehouse space.

“I love the custom vibe, but I want to offer a full product range,” she said.

The writer in her new hat, custom-made by Neysha De León (Photo by Mariela Lombard)

This is the most expensive hat I’ve bought, but I feel completely satisfied with my decision.

Not just because of the environmental impact, but because I’m supporting a young artist who has been working three jobs for months to launch her dream brand and who desires to eventually give back to Puerto Rico – also my homeland – by teaching her skills to artists there and hiring them for production. She’s also considered having her packaging created on the island.

Neysha’s Brooklyn studio is adorned not only by hats, but also with hints of Puerto Rico: a flag painted over a piece of burlap, vejigantes (folkloric masks), and a copy of photographer Jack Delano’s classic, “Puerto Rico Mío.”

“Nostalgia” is the word she used to describe where her inspiration comes from. I share the sentiment of craving the land we played on as children. But for both of us, longing for Puerto Rico is a feeling we want to turn into action by helping the local economy. I made my start by buying a Neysha De León hat.

You can see more of Neysha at neydeleon.com.

Camille A. Padilla Dalmau is a reporter for El Diario. This article was produced as part of the 2016 Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

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