A boutique renaissance is blossoming on the stretch of Venice Boulevard that cuts through Mar Vista. Among the new denizens is Meshika, a small shop hawking pottery, women’s jewelry and hats so uniquely gender-neutral you can probably sneakily pick one out for yourself then gift it to your ladyfriend.
Inside, the hats hang on the wall like prizes from a hunt. One is olive green with an Aztec playing card protruding from the brim; another is peach-dyed rabbit pelt with rattlesnake patches and a heavy bronze nail wedged into the ribbon at the base.
There isn’t a register — just a station with potted plants and a sewing machine where the owner, Alberto Hernandez, sits stitching his next design. He’s tall and round-shouldered and speaks with the soft swagger of a hip-hop caballero.
A dog sleeps at his feet. His pet tortoise messes around in its cage on a desk, which is cluttered with an industrial steam iron for plying the stiff pelts that surround him. Artwork donated by friends adorns the walls: An Apache print. A Congolese straw hat. The skull of a cow. Vintage blocks from the 1940s and ‘50s are stacked on shelves overhead, which Hernandez uses to shape the domes of his hats, much as they did back when a good lid was as compulsory as a clean shirt and shined shoes.
In the back, an old Mexican woman sits at a compact workstation, adding ribbon, beads and Navajo necklaces to a hat. They converse in Spanish as Alberto’s wife, Kristin, talks on the phone to friends affected by the Woolsey Fire. He stops his work to inquire if they’re safe. One is. One isn’t. He goes back to work, keeping busy.
Alberto is not even 30 but he’s been making hats all of his life, following in his father’s footsteps, who followed in his father’s. He grew up in Guanajuato (“the bellybutton of Mexico,” he says), where hatmaking has been a way of life for nearly 200 years. He moved to L.A. in 2006, finding work at Baron Hats in Burbank. Baron is known for making hats for movies; Alberto worked on Indiana Jones and 3:10 to Yuma. But it was his stint backing Nick Fouquet that helped catapult his career: Pharrell wore one. Cam Newton. Next it was Lady Gaga. The list is quite long.
But earlier this year, Alberto decided to strike out on his own.
Meshika’s more modestly priced designs come in at $500. Those ones are typically made of rabbit pelt. He also uses beaver, which comes in stiff as plywood but lasts a lifetime with little wear. Both are sourced from heritage companies in Philadelphia and Chicago. After a consultation, you pick a color, and then Alberto measures your head for the open crown wood blocks, which are used to steam the pelt until it fits your head.
After it’s blocked, Alberto leaves it to dry outside. “It sits outside in the nice California sunny day,” he laughs. “California is always sunny, so it’s a beautiful state to make hats, which requires a lot of heat. I need the sun to dry the hats because with the steam, it gets wet, it gets a little damp. You need to dry them so when you pounce them they don’t get any stained spots.”
Once dry, he adds the flourishes that make them true originals. Sometimes it’s a necklace he found at the flea market. Sometimes he douses the hat in a special fluid and lights it on fire to give it some char and character. Then he stitches in a label that reads Good Luck, a signature he was gifted by a Japanese artist, and adds a snakeskin bow tie to the inside of the lid.
“I didn’t want it to look like the Borsalinos,” he says. “I didn’t want them to look like the Stetsons — the regular basic thing that everyone wears.”
Mission accomplished, and then some.
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