Milwaukee couple to launch own line of handmade hats

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The art of hat making is alive and well in Milwaukee, and one Milwaukee couple has seen their dream of opening their own hat making business come to life -- and business is booming. Now, the McLaughlins are getting ready to launch their own line of hats to be made by hand and distributed across the country!

"It all harkens back to a time when a guy wouldn't leave without a suit and a hat," John McLaughlin said.

As investors were losing their shirts in the stock market, John and Kate McLaughlin wanted to give them back at least part of their wardrobe.

"People thought we were nuts," John McLaughlin said.

Then again, some of the best ideas sound so crazy, they just might work!

"We have such refined and odd and specialized talents," Kate McLaughlin said.

Ever since he was a young boy, John loved hats -- the way they looked, the way they felt, the way they added panache to a personality.

"Then I married Kate," John McLaughlin said.

Kate McLaughlin is a milliner, which is a fancy word for a fancy craft.

"I made my very first hat when I was a junior in high school. As a milliner, you make women's hats. As a hatter you make men's hats. I get to wear the title of both," Kate McLaughlin said.

The heyday of the hatters -- the 1930s through 1960s has long since passed. There are now only about a half-dozen left in the United States.

"There are a small handful of us who keep the traditions alive," John McLaughlin said.

That was, until an unlikely resurgence of the hat in popular culture.

The McLaughlin's point to shows like Mad Men and commercials on television that led them to the idea of opening their own hat store.

"It took me about 30 seconds to say 'yeah,'" John McLaughlin said.

With a dream and a sewing machine, the two saved money for years, and finally opened a shop in Milwaukee. They did all the work themselves -- and even decorated the store with items from their own home.

"It's rich dark colors, leathers, dark wood, very traditional men's shop," John McLaughlin said.

When it came time to name their store, the couple was inspired by an odd, but indelible wedding gift.

Looked at my wife and was like, 'honey, The Brass Rooster!'" John McLaughlin said.

The Brass Rooster was born, and customers flocked to the new custom hat shop -- where the artists work in plain view.

"Everything gets done right here in house. We do things really traditionally around here," John McLaughlin said.

As sales increased and business boomed -- another idea blossomed: "To sell and launch a new American-made, handmade product from a small store like this," John McLaughlin said.

This time, the man who uses tools made in the 1800s turned to a modern invention: the internet, as a way to pass the hat.

"Crowdfunding is a great way and people really love it. It's a way for them to get involved and back things that they really believe in without having to disturb their daily life," John McLaughlin said.

The couple put together a kickstarter video asking fedora fans across the country for some financial support.

"Brought in right around $17,000 in 12 days," John McLaughlin said.

This fall, The Brass Rooster will launch its own designer line, with distribution in shops across the country.

"Traditional craftsmanship is how I'd describe it. I stand at this bench for 8 - 12 hours a day, and it's very simple, very basic tools, but the things you can create with them are unbelievable," John McLaughlin said.

The McLaughlin's have worked to create a thriving business in a struggling economy by melding the art of fashion, continuing a tradition and bringing hat lovers together.