When we meet, Marc Williamson tells me he wants to corner the hat market by “passing the torch of good taste from one generation to the next.” Seven weeks ago, he opened his shop, the Flamekeepers Hat Club on West 121st Street, steps away from Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where Harlem’s colorful history has merged with vegan bakeries and some of the city’s best soul food.
As I entered the asymmetrical space, Williamson, 44, greeted me with an aura of positivity and genuine ease—not the cheesy, forced welcome you get from a part-time salesman earning a few extra bucks in between class or Broadway auditions. After all, hats have been part of his life for the past 22 years; passion and positivity fuel his business.
The shop’s hats and caps, which range from $35 to $300, come from manufactures all across the globe: Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Ireland, Columbia, and some are even made domestically. Each one is designed distinctively, marking decades-old traditions from each manufacture, guaranteeing a plethora of options and hats to fit every type of person. Williamson’s mostly male customers range from Wall Street executives to downtown hipsters.
His hat journey began while Williamson was studying Business Merchandising at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where he sought out a part-time job to help ease the financial burden. He spent days going from interview to interview before being hired on-the-spot at New York’s oldest hat shop—J.J. Hat Center.
“The management really groomed me for retail,” Williamson said of what he thought would just be a pit-stop on his path to graduation. “Once I got pulled into the management side of things that was it.” He would later become part owner of J.J.’s for a total of eleven years, as well as co-owner of Pork Pie Hatters in the East Village and Williamsburg. He’s catered to locals and tourists, as well as high-profile clients ranging from Sarah Jessica Parker to Pharrell Williams.
Williamson wasn’t always a hat guy—clothing was more his forte—and his experience in the hat industry evolved his personal style to almost always include the structured accessory. “My signature items would be my headwear…my scarves…and my socks,” he told Time Out New York when they dubbed him one of the Most Stylish New Yorkers of 2013.
Williamson’s 22 years in the business has also honed a trained eye in selecting the right hat for a person based on their look, energy, and style. Williamson stands by his record of rarely disappointing a customer when they are at a loss as to what suits them. But, he says, what ultimately makes a hat look good on a person is the symmetry of the crown of their head to their jaw line. “It’s key to a hat looking good,” he said. “That’s really the sweet spot.”
Flamekeepers, outfitted with its dark woods, bare-stone walls, and copper pipe shelving, occupies a completely modern space with a subtle ode to the past. It’s a play on Williamson’s idea of the current perception of the business. “I think hats around the world are looked at as old-fashioned,” he said. “I wanted to create a space that was more contemporary so that people would understand that hats are just as much [modern] as they are old.”
Just as hats are diverse, so are their wearers. “Anyone who wears a hat,” Williamson said, “definitely wants to tell you something about themselves. They want to speak about who they are.”
Flamekeepers Hat Club is located at 220 St. Nicholas Avenue at 121st Street in Harlem.