Burb's Eye View: Master makes hats his head priority

Mark Mejia’s shop is a museum for the mind, a castle for the cabeza. It honors, celebrates, and in many cases improves upon the human head.

It is at once a resting place for Hollywood’s hottest head gear, and a retail establishment for the fashion-forward celebrity or the fashion-conscious fan who just wants to know, “How can I get a hat like that?”

The answer usually resides with Mejia, Hollywood’s master hat-maker who can easily replicate that bowler on Bob Dylan because he made it in the first place.

Baron Hats on Burbank Boulevard was established more than 60 years ago by Eddie Baron, a costumer who grew a side business into a full-time operation for supplying silver-screen cowboys and gangsters with their signature looks.

Mejia, Baron’s apprentice, took over the shop in 1995. He’s still stretching, weaving and shaping hats of all shapes, sizes and skins as Eddie Baron did for the likes of the original Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore. The fates have brought that relationship full-circle — when Armie Hammer dons the famous black mask next year, it will again rest underneath a Baron Stetson.

With so much custom work to be done, Mejia has to build many of his tools himself. He maintains all his own wood forms that shape his hats, and keeps his vintage Singer sewing machines spinning. He is an artist, a woodworker, a weaver, a tanner, a machinist.

“To keep this place going I have to wear many hats,” Mejia said.

I caught up with him in a rare moment when he could sit still. The day of a hatter in L.A. involves moving from location to location delivering costumes to movie sets, commercial shoots, big people, little people, tiny marionette people (think Puppetmaster movies)…even a certain Taco Bell dog wore a Baron hat.

“It is strange…it’s weird to be meeting people I watched on TV growing up,” he said.

When he brings the stars to the store, Mejia fits them with a device that looks as if it will suck one’s brain straight through the skull. The “conformature” was built in the 1890s, and consists of dozens of individual pieces that conform to a head shape. From this model, Baron Hats has created masterpieces for John Wayne, Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford and so on.

The macabre-looking device gives Mejia an exact shape of the actor’s head, so when Jaime Foxx dons his western hat in “Django Unchained,” it fits like a glove. Er, hat.

And in that hat is love. It is many hours of hand-molding, pressing, clamping and stretching over wood blocks, and it is an artistry often underappreciated and unnoticed by the general public.

But then the actor or local detective or Burbank neighbor sees him or herself in the mirror for the first time. In those moments Mejia stands back and smiles, an artist of style plying his trade on an outward expression of his client’s ID.

There are those who come to him and say “I can’t wear hats.” There are those like me who have a hard time finding hats that fit.

There is function to the Baron Hat, but there is an intangible thing too, a missing piece to a wardrobe puzzle, something to elevate one’s self-respect. Mejia tries to solve both at once, whether it’s the right style, the right color, or that perfect little feather flourish that completes the classic timeless flow of the fedora.

“I could have never just opened a hat store,” Mejia said. “But because we do so many other things…All of these things keep me reaching out to do Not the Normal.”

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he isn’t seeking hats to fit his noggin, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter: @818NewGuy.

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