One December morning, among the sparse riders waiting for the G train in Brooklyn, New York, I saw a tall Black man with a colorful jacket and a cowboy hat. I took some photos as I introduced myself to Richard Faison. “I am also an artist and I actually made this hat,” he told me.
A few weeks later, a friend who was visiting from Florence casually mentioned she wanted to buy a hat while here, and I arranged to see Faison in his lab, which turned out to also be his apartment. The one-bedroom apartment was filled with dozens of hats at various stages of existence and along with my friend Michèle’s green hat, two more were being “blocked” and were drying by the window. On the wall was hanging a shtreimel, the first one that Faison made: these hats, traditionally worn by Orthodox Jewish men, were in fact his specialty.
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Sitting down with Faison on his sofa on that day, and once again more recently, I asked him some questions. Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Francesca Magnani: You used to be a filmmaker. How did you become a milliner?
Richard Faison: I went to a small program at NY Film Academy for eight months. I started doing film by carrying around my mom’s video camera and shooting all my friends and my adventures, editing cool videos and creating a series that got pretty popular on Facebook. That led me to make music videos. I went to Toronto after meeting a few artists out there, and I became an editor and cinematographer for short films and documentaries. I started making hats legit by coincidence. I was friends with a Hasidic gentleman, Lov, and he came by my place for some drinks with friends. He said, “You always wear cool hats, you should work with a guy I sell fur to.” That’s how I met my mentor and this entire adventure started.
FM: How do the two worlds, film and millinery, work in synergy?
RF: They are similar. You have to have an eye and a certain aesthetic that you want your pieces to have. The vision I see of a hat is like how I used to envision how I wanted certain shots to look like before going out to shoot, and just creating something with a story that people can either relate to or admire.
FM: You started your own business just a few months ago, last September. How did you build your own company, Oliver Lewis Hats?
RF: My mentor helped me: I worked for him in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for about three years. The day I asked for a second raise, he took me on a long car ride and looked me directly in the eyes. He said, “You are a true artist with your hands, but I’ll never pay you what you deserve.” Those words were the most beautiful and hurtful I’ve heard in one sentence. After that, he got me my first hat body and told me where to get more, and I took off running.
FM: Coming from a background in filmmaking, are there artists and directors you look to for inspiration?
RF: My number one influence would have to be Jimi Hendrix. His style, his grace, the chances he took, how groovy he was, everything! I used to watch his old concerts and get lost in his rhythm and clothing choices. The second is André 3000 of Outkast. I moved to Atlanta in 2003 for high school. I remember getting bullied for wearing tight jeans back then but then I would look at the shirts, pants, and hats André 3000 would wear, and it gave me the confidence to be myself no matter what others thought.
FM: How do you reach out to customers? Who are your best clients?
RF: I reach my customers best through Instagram, where I can show my skills through video reels and also communicate directly with my audience. I have an even number of male and female clients — the age range is usually 30 to 40 and things are just getting started now.
FM: You said you devised your own gluing technique for shtreimels; you use as ornament some Swiss figurines usually found in “Swiss cowboy” belts, and the name of your business comes from Oliver Lewis, the first Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. How do influences from different cultures inform your creations?
RF: Influences are how I came to be. They’re the essence behind my entire being and work. Growing up in Brooklyn, I had so many cultures surrounding me that would impact me. My dad being from Trinidad and being a huge cowboy lover was one of the biggest for me. I watched Clint Eastwood movies with him and thought cowboys were the coolest people on earth. Then I found out that most cowboys were actually Mexican and Black and that piqued my interest.
FM: We met on a train platform. What part does the street play in your work?
RF: I get a lot of inspiration from the Italians in NYC (such smooth style!), Jamaicans, and Hispanic communities. The melting pot in Flatbush helped me create my unique style.