Stores with Stories: The Custom Hatter

By Nancy J. Parisi

Published on | Last Updated

When Hollywood, Netflix, Amazon, or Broadway needs spot-on period hats, they call Buffalo’s Gary White, who does business as The Custom Hatter. From his shop with its faded, hand-painted sign on Broadway in Buffalo’s Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, he’s created hats for heads in all sorts of productions – for four decades.

A Buffalo native, he’s somewhat modest about his international superstardom. He’s outfitted movie stars, rock stars, captains of industry, and other discerning lovers of hats from near and far wanting something custom and impeccably crafted. He has a loyal following of Buffalo men and women who love his work. After four decades of being a hatter, White still strives for perfection: “I’m always trying to polish the apple, and build a better mousetrap.”

Gary White, owner of The Custom Hatter

The movie Marshall (filmed in Buffalo, starring Chadwick Boseman, and released in 2017) kept White busy. As did Martin Scorsese’s 2019 The Irishman, and the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – and scores of others.

Classic rock blares from a radio in the workshop and the walls of the front of the shop are papered with movie posters, photographs of stars, and thank you notes from hundreds of happy customers. There are also his neat, hand-written notes pertaining to movie orders: photos of stars, production timelines. A doorframe has his current orders hanging around it: some customers may happily wait five months or so for their hats.

A resident of West Seneca, White grew up in the very Polish Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood (born on Lombard Street, he went to Corpus Christi School on Clark Street) where his shop has always been located. The Custom Hatter is now only open by appointment; orders stream in via in-person or online fittings. White is passionate about his work and his car, parked in front, has the custom license plate “HATTER.” “Wherever I go, every police department knows me,” he says.

Josh Gad and Chadwick Boseman of Marshall, filmed in Buffalo / Open Road Films

Born Witkowski, White changed his surname while working as a young stockboy – before rising to head salesperson and then buyer – at fine local men’s clothing store Peller & Mure, once a mainstay of Buffalo high end shopping on Delaware Avenue at West Tupper Street. Co-owner Anthony M. “Roy” Peller, White says, asked him to make the change, believing he’d have greater success in business with a less ethnic-sounding last name.

White tells the story of his father not speaking to him after seeing his Peller & Mure business cards, but later basking in his son’s success after he got to meet some of his celebrity clients. “Both my grandfather and my father were hat-wearers, but I started to love them, have an affection for them, when I started selling them.” He maintained his connections with customers as well as hat companies’ CEO’s: “As they moved up the ladder, they took me with them.”

White keeps his sales notebook from his Peller & Mure days in one of his showcases, showing notes that he kept on customers’ hat sizes, birthdays, and other pertinent information to make meaningful connections, sending out thank you notes, and birthday cards regularly. Working toward bonuses, White became the top salesman at Peller & Mure. He became so successful, he says, that the store ended their bonus program contests. “I broke all their sales records,” he says. He keeps the books, he says, to show himself “That you can always be better at what you do.”

When he decided that he wanted to move from buyer to creator, and learn the craft, White apprenticed for a decade under a master hatter, Henry Goldstein, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Over time, White purchased the necessary tools of the trade, all still used today and in plain view from his showroom: hickory wood hat blocks to form hats in several styles in every possible head size; different samples of beaver felt hat bodies, steam fitters, and buffers.

Dustin Hoffman and his Billy Bathgate co-stars sport hats made by Gary White / Touchstone Pictures

White’s first steady stream of customers, he says, came from the nearby Black Masonic Lodge, The Paramount Lodge, in East Buffalo, after their lodge master Willie “Pete” Watson discovered White’s talent. Watson became an early regular customer. But it was a visit by a costume designer for an Off-Broadway production of The Cat in the Hat that got him his theatrical foot in the door. “She needed someone to make the Cat’s hat so I created one for her. I’ll never forget that job because I had to find a red hat body and the white stripes, which I sewed on. She was thrilled with it.”

From theater commissions, movie productions were added to White’s business mix. Back in the day, White might be on set measuring heads, whereas now he works on his iPad, consulting photographs (“mug shots”), production notes, and measurements taken by costume designers. And he does his homework: watching movies, looking at old production stills, “researching for period accuracy.” “Then I’ll make my recommendations to the costume designer,” White says, “making adjustments based on the look the production is trying to portray.”

Gary White in front of his Broadway storefront

And for his own head, White puts on a Panama hat in the summertime. “If you see me out and about in the warmer months, I’ll be wearing a new one. It’s made from the crème de la crème materials from Ecuador. It’s hand-woven and they make it 1400 weaves per square inch. I’m making mine now as well as other custom Panama hats for customers. They’re so lightweight, you don’t even know that you’ve got them on. That material they’re woven from grows in the rain forest and it’s harvested daily.”

White even has a hat he makes just for himself. “I have a special color of felt that I won’t use to make a hat for anyone else,” he says. “It’s called Cielo Blue. I’ll make a steel blue hat, which is close, but Cielo Blue is a little deeper shade. It’s just part of the art that I practice. And maybe I happen to like that color because I have blue eyes, and I’m Polish.”

• • •

The Custom Hatter, 1318 Broadway, Buffalo | Facebook

Nancy J. Parisi headshot

Nancy J. Parisi

Nancy is a social documentation photographer based in Buffalo, NY.