written by Haley Martin | photos by Masahiro Shimazki
Everything in John Fish’s hat shop was either made 100 years ago or yesterday. It’s hard to tell the difference.
Fish’s shop, This Is Folklore, sounds more like a book title or indie lyric, but, in fact, is an American heritage company of antique-inspired goods. He opened it a year-and-a-half ago. He specializes in producing tailor-made hats, hand-crafted leather goods and accessories.
Located in Portland on NE Killingsworth Street, the shop’s storefront is unassuming. “When you first walk in, you kind of get the feeling that you’re not supposed to be there,” Fish offered. “I think that’s everyone’s favorite part.”
He acknowledged that people sometimes walk in and walk right back out thinking they’ve made a mistake. “Although that could be considered ‘not good for business,’ there’s something about it that makes me feel good about what I have created,” he said.
Housing a vast collection of antique Americana as well as handmade goods, Fish’s shop captures the nostalgia of an era passed. It is small and dark, the ceilings are low, and something about the smell reminds people of a time they’ve forgotten. “I think the shop instills a feeling of discovery when you walk through the door that is unique to our time.”
Fish was raised in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Northern Michigan. “I grew up in a dead logging and mining town,” he said. “There wasn’t much of a culture around my interests—skateboarding, art, design and fashion, so I learned to create those for myself.”
He remembers drawing logos for fictional skateboard companies and graphics for boards. He would even buy clothes from the local St. Vincent De Paul and try to alter them into the versions that skateboarders wore in videos. “As I got older, I learned that this was called being a designer,” he recalled. “When I graduated high school, I went to college to learn everything I could about design and production.”
After moving to Portland and struggling to find the design job of his dreams, he realized he would have to create the opportunity for himself. He eventually came across a photo online of someone making a hat. This resonated with him immediately, and it wasn’t long before he bought himself an old hat mold and gave it a shot.
“I dove into hat making with pure ignorance,” he said. “I honestly thought I would just pick it up, but the first hat I ever made was so horrible that it shattered my confidence. It didn’t sit right with me that I couldn’t do it, so I just kept going.”
He quickly became obsessed. After his second batch of hats, the rest of his life became clear: he wanted to make hats. Fish now considers himself one of very few—some would argue 300 total—hat makers in the world.
While men’s fashion has been infiltrated with graphic tees, athletic shorts and sneakers in recent years Fish thinks this is turning around. “At the turn of the century, even the day laborers and dockworkers wore suits or at least carried themselves with a sense of style and pride. I think that style is coming back—and you can’t really finish off a look without a nice hat.”
Today, Fish crafts hats by hand, using the highest quality American fur felts ranging from pure rabbit to beaver and blends. His sweatbands and leather goods are hand-stitched using European vegetable-tanned leather, while his ribbons are all antique or vintage French and Italian Grosgrain.
The hatter attributes his entrepreneurial mindset to his father who has owned several different companies over the years. His passion for leatherworking can be traced back to poking around his grandfather’s garage as a kid. “My grandpa logged in the woods the old-fashioned way, with horses, until he was 75 years old,” he said. “He grew up during the Depression, so he was a bit of a folk artist himself. He had a lot of crudely made tools for shoeing horses, leather harnesses and bridle reigns hanging in his garage that he had collected over the years.” After his grandfather died, Fish became interested in making leather goods.
This has, by far, been the most difficult and the most rewarding work he’s ever done. Fish’s work has all been bespoke hats. He’s currently working on a high-end line of hats to manufacture and sell wholesale. One day he hopes to employ his family and friends, where they all create and produce wares from inside a small manufacturing facility in Portland. “I have always had a strong passion for the art of manufacturing, and I think there is something at the root of it that holds the heart of the American people,” he said.