Mark Mejia dumps a handful of Borax into a large enamel pot of simmering water and submerges a Western-style hat that he’s making for singer John Mayer to wear in his latest music video.
“It was too stiff,” says Mejia, 49, dunking and twisting the hat-in-progress to soften the stubborn beaver felt. “It wasn’t giving me the result I wanted.”
The owner of Baron Hats in Burbank, California, Mejia is a perfectionist when it comes to crafting custom headwear. During the last 20 years, Mejia has created thousands of hats—from British bowlers and felt fedoras to pretty pillboxes and straw boaters—for Hollywood actors and entertainers.
Mejia’s original creations include Johnny Depp’s straw boater in “Public Enemies;” Ryan Gosling’s 1940s fedora in “Gangster Squad;” and dozens of Western hats for the entire Cavendish Gang in last summer’s “The Lone Ranger” movie. He also re-created Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat for permanent display in the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
A native of Downey, California, Mejia took a roundabout route to hat-making, spending 12 years as a science technician for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Ready for a change, he decided to try his hand as a hatter, following the suggestion of a hat-maker friend.
“I was looking for my passion,” recalls Mejia, who studied the hat-making craft during several trips to New York City in the early 1990s, and began making hats as a sideline while working for the Los Angeles school district.
In 1993, Mejia approached Eddie Baron, who founded Baron Hats in 1970, about purchasing some of the shop’s aluminum hat molds. Baron refused to sell him any hat-making equipment unless he purchased the entire store.
“I rolled the dice,” recalls Mejia, who apprenticed with the master hatter before buying the shop outright in 1995.
Today, Mejia uses Baron’s hat-making blocks, molds and equipment to fashion hats from a variety of materials, including cashmere, fur and linen, for celebrities and other hat-wearing customers.
“There’s nothing more important than a hat,” Mejia says.
After inquiring about a customer’s desired style and measuring their head, Mejia and his four assistants get to work, blocking and shaping each hat, using hand tools and steam to stretch and form the contours of the crown and brim.
Once the desired shape is achieved, felt hats are sanded for smoothness, and lubricated for luster and waterproofing, before being lined with fabric and a sweatband. Sometimes, a hatband or feather is added for embellishment.
“Every day is something different,” says Omar Ibarra, 28, who has worked for Mejia for nine years. “That’s why I’m still here—learning, every day.”
Costume designer and supervisor Dan Moore recalls dozing on the shop’s sofa while Mejia and his crew hustled to complete an array of Western-style hats for “The Magnificent Seven” television series. Moore credits Mejia’s handiwork with helping him win an Emmy for the 1998-1999 series. He also admires Mejia’s penchant for historical accuracy, recalling that the hat-maker has searched the world for just the right straw to make Panama hats for characters’ costumes.
“I always tell people there’s no sacrifice too great to bring entertainment to the American people,” Moore says. “Mark believes it.”
Though production deadlines can be tight and stressful, Mejia prides himself on creating authentic and fashionable headwear for Hollywood’s leading men and ladies.
“It’s pretty neat to watch a film in a theater, and know you were a part of it,” he says. “Watching the hero wear something you created—that’s pretty special.”