Georgiette Morgan-Thomas is known among friends for never being seen without a hat, but she surprised them by investing more than $100,000 to take over the Philadelphia company she’s renamed American Hats.
NEW YORK — The straw hat with ribbon and a silk flower slid easily on Zina Burton-Myrick’s head as she looked in the mirror, cocked her head to the side and then dipped her knees a bit to view herself from various angles. There was silence as everyone in the showroom in Harlem waited for the verdict.
“I’m feeling this. This is it,” said Burton-Myrick, 54, a representative for the United Federation of Teachers, who wanted a hat for a convention.
Nearby, the Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, who owns the showroom on Strivers’ Row and has been a part of the Harlem community for decades, gave a clap of approval before stepping in to make adjustments.
Background: Retired in May as director of Harlem services for Goddard Riverside Community Center, after 20 years at the New York City social-services organization
Goal: Hopes to open a second factory for American Hats in Harlem
“The hat is empowering. If you go back and look at pictures of women in the suffragette movement, they were all wearing hats,” Morgan-Thomas said. “It gives a woman good posture. When something is on your head, you hold your head up straight.”
Morgan-Thomas would know. She owns more than 100 hats and is known for never being seen without one. Though, at 68, she never expected to own a hat factory.
But in 2015, when her friend Harriet Rosebud, a hat designer, mentioned that the ailing S&S Hat Co. in Philadelphia was for sale, Morgan-Thomas jumped at the opportunity.
“I just said, ‘I’ll buy it.’ Then I said, ‘What did I just say?’ ” Morgan-Thomas recalled at the factory in May.
She invested more than $100,000 and took over in January 2016, renaming the factory American Hats.
“She just doesn’t say she likes hats — she lives it, “ Rosebud said. “When she doesn’t wear a hat, people sometimes don’t recognize her. I’ve seen it happen.”
The company quickly lost a $32,000 annual order, and a manager left. Morgan-Thomas, who had planned to handle only the managerial and marketing aspects, leaned on her employees to learn the basics.
“We weren’t taking over a business that was successful,” Morgan-Thomas’ only child, Robert Morgan III, 40, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, said. “The business was declining, and it was a rehab project.”
Last year, the factory sold more than 3,000 hats, ranging from $90 to almost $400, a 40 percent increase from 2015, Morgan-Thomas said.
The 18,000-square-foot factory was filled with racks of colorful hats. Broad-brimmed straw hats screamed summer. The small office at the factory was filled with hats that couldn’t fit in the showroom. There were large, purple Dr. Seuss-looking hats, often favored by women for church, and more subtle black ones, most often worn for mourning.
Wearing a black, short bucket hat with satin ribbon and a stingy brim, Morgan-Thomas negotiated sharply with suppliers over delivery dates but then took the time to give a customer suggestions.
“I don’t want anyone looking at you saying, ‘Who told you that looked good?’ ” Morgan-Thomas told the woman.
An employee popped in to ask whether a feather on a church hat for a regular customer should be replaced.
“That other feather looked a little too country,” Morgan-Thomas said. “It’s the little things that make our hats worth the money.”
In one corner of the factory, Nick Vega, 43, who has worked at the factory since he was 17, was shaping crowns. At a sewing machine, Lord Klot, 53, was sewing together 100-yard spools of crinoline and satin ribbon, a process known as rowing.
The S&S Hat Co. began selling headgear in 1923 to boutiques and department stores. Many of the factory’s tools are so old that Vega has struggled to find parts to repair them.
“These hats are hard to do,” he said as he steamed hats on wooden molds using an iron. “You can’t buy these at Wal-Mart.”
Morgan-Thomas retired in May as the director of Harlem services for the Goddard Riverside Community Center. She had planned to move to Virginia Beach to help take care of her granddaughter.
“I was surprised she’s running a factory, but I’m not surprised it’s a hat factory, because she loves hats,” said Sayeeda Mentor, 45, who took over for Morgan-Thomas in running two Goddard housing sites. “I’m not surprised she’s able to run a factory, because she has management skill for days.”
When the Goddard Riverside Community Center hired Morgan-Thomas in 1997 to run Corner House, a residence for older and formerly homeless and mentally ill adults at Edgecombe Avenue and 141st Street, she had to put those skills to use.
Two days after she arrived, there was a shootout in front of the building.
“I said, ‘We have to do something about this,’ ” she said.
Morgan-Thomas joined with Edgecombe Avenue residents. They bought four trees, and Corner House residents planted them. An annual Christmas tree lighting was followed by the creation of a play street that taught conflict resolution and brought the area to life, warding off drug trafficking.
Today, a “gentrified coffee shop” sits at Edgecombe and 142nd Street, and Mentor said it would not be there if Morgan-Thomas had not helped clean up the area.
All of that goodwill came in handy when Morgan-Thomas ran into financial trouble at the factory.
“I would see people and they would say, ‘Here’s $100 for the factory,’ ” Morgan-Thomas said. “It wasn’t a big amount of money, but it was the sentiment that my community was behind me.”
And American Hats is on the upswing, she said. The company has begun selling hats under its own moniker and is branching into men’s hats and doll hats.
Now, Morgan-Thomas wants students to intern at her factory, and she eventually would like to open a second factory, in Harlem.
This month, teenagers from a Harlem summer-jobs program will visit the factory to learn about hat-making.
“I want young people to learn this art. It went away, but now it’s coming back,” Morgan-Thomas said. “I’m glad because I just don’t feel comfortable without my hat.”