Ryan McGrath has always enjoyed working with his hands, but a job in corporate America led to his desire for a creative outlet. He tried blowing glass and throwing clay, but eventually found his way to hats as the perfect medium for his art.
He got a hat made and then personalized it himself. “People started asking me to do that to their Stetons, but I also wanted to learn how to make hats from scratch,” McGrath tells InsideHook. “After a few years, it became the only thing I wanted to do.”
In 2021, McGrath started Trovador Customs, at first working out of his house and selling hats online. He opened his Austin shop on South Congress the following year and is preparing to celebrate his one-year anniversary in the space.
Walk into the store, and you’ll see a selection of ready-to-wear hats that are available to purchase on site and take home. But the draw that’s earned McGrath customers in Austin and around the world is the shop’s bespoke offerings, in which he works with clients to handcraft a hat that’s personal and meaningful to them.
The process begins with a consultation and measurements — ideally in person, but McGrath can also work with clients virtually. All Trovador pieces use beaver felt, which he says is the best high-end option for hats because it’s more tightly bound than other materials, completely waterproof and nearly indestructible. It’s also soft and easy to clean.
Customers will go through about 40 possible color options, and McGrath will guide them to a good color based on their hair, eyes and skin tone. Face shape, shoulder width and height help to determine style and brim length; occupation, personality and wardrobe might inform whether the hat takes on more of a Western, rocker or boho vibe. He also speaks with customers to learn about their lives, and then pulls out overarching themes to incorporate into the hat design, ranging from favorite numbers and places to song lyrics or other passions. The end result might include feathers, crystals, paint or wood-burned symbols. The sky’s the limit.
“I want people to feel empowered about their piece, so instead of making it about the brand or the maker, I make it about the person wearing it,” says McGrath. “Every part of the hat is about them.”
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One of McGrath’s favorite projects is the hat he made for ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons, who asked for his custom job to look like it had been through hell. When Gibbons arrived to pick it up, he took out a $100 bill, chopped the end off and incorporated it into the design. Another customer, an avid traveler, brought in an old passport, so McGrath ripped out a page, burned the edges and built that into the hat. And then there’s the motorcycle rider who wanted his hat to feature an old bike chain. Other examples have featured shark teeth, arrowheads, pins, flowers and embroidery.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be a guy who embroiders stuff, but I taught myself how to do it,” says McGrath.
From start to finish, Trovador hats take about two months to be completed. Part of that wait is simply because each piece is handmade and personal to the wearer. But the war in Ukraine hasn’t helped — McGrath explains that most of the world’s beaver fur comes from Ukraine, so the material has become harder to acquire.
A trip to the shop provides a glimpse of what McGrath is working on, and seeing all the colors, patterns and possible adornments often sparks ideas for new customers. But in addition to making high-end hats for musicians and stylish locals, McGrath works with Texas Oncology to donate hats to cancer patients who’ve lost their hair from chemotherapy. He asks patients to pick out a word or a phrase that inspires hope, and he burns it into the hat.
“I wanted to make this more than a vanity project,” he says.
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