First appeared in Issue 4 of Inner Circle Magazine in print (June 2017). To request a free hard copy, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hats have come in and out of vogue over the years in the eyes of fashion analysts and trend trackers, but for Michael Albert, the man behind Smart Alec Hatters in Fitzroy, headwear will always be in style. It’s a non-negotiable aesthetic element that can pick even the daggiest of outfits up a notch.
And this is exactly what Albert tries to prove to anyone who graces his shop.
Smart Alec has been running for ten years strong, but it’s sister store, Scally & Trombone, was conceived twenty years prior. Between the two shops, all of your hat needs can be met, including those you didn’t even know you had yet.
Albert’s specialty is far removed from fitted caps with “MOTIVATION” scrawled across the brim or snapbacks stolen from some grandfather’s closet. His passion lies in proper “gentlemen’s” hats- from finely crafted bowlers, berets and top hats to straw fedoras and flat caps in just about every print and colour imaginable.
Smart Alec also offers gloves, cufflinks and scarves to complete the look, and tchotchkes to play with while you browse. I don’t think they sell canes, but feel this would be a fine addition to their collection.
But of course, the main thing that keeps customers coming back is the hat selection, complemented by Albert’s advice on finding that perfect fit. He prioritizes a soft sales approach in hopes of maintaining trust and goodwill between himself and his customers.
“Sometimes it takes two to three visits to find that sweet hat”, Albert told me when I stopped into the shop for a chat.
He shared stories of regular customers paying him a visit, only to be sent away because he knew the right hat for them wasn’t available. But then again, there were other times when he would sit a customer down with five different options, convinced that any one of them would be appropriate for their needs.
“Sometimes it takes two to three visits to find that sweet hat”
Despite the classification as a men’s store, Albert’s clientele is not limited only to males. The customers at Smart Alec cross a wide range of backgrounds, in gender and in age, ethnically and economically.
Interestingly enough, they don’t all start off as “hat people” either, although Albert claims that’s where a lot of the fun lies. As much as he loves when customers know exactly what they’re after, he also enjoys the challenge of turning a skeptic into a full-blown hat-fanatic.
And if there’s anything to convince you that hats are a good look, it’s the sight of Albert himself, decked out in a different hat on any given day, plus a grade-A ensemble to complete the look.
When I stopped in to see him, he was in all black, complete with a button-down vest, horn-rimmed spectacles, lace-up vans and, of course, a newsboy cap to top it all off.
It just so happens the hat was tweed, Albert’s fabric of choice. He admits to having an obsession with the material, even going as far as to “tweed-bomb” the pole out the front of his shop. The tweed around the pole has held strong for three years thus far- a testament to the knit’s sturdiness as well as Albert’s craftsmanship.
Although Smart Alec describes their inventory as “unique vintage imports” of the cranial variety, they do offer bespoke wear as well. Albert is the man in charge of these custom caps, which he crafts right in the back room of his shop.
Many designs start off for his own use, but end up in some other lucky customer’s hands when they convince Albert to let them take it home. At the end of the day, though, he is there to sell hats, and he’s happy when a good design receives the appreciation it deserves.
Over his ten-plus years of business, Albert has sold to the rich and the famous. He’s had both local and international celebrities visit the store; he’s had customers who wouldn’t bat an eye on spending a few hundred per hat.
But he aims to treat each customer like the next, regardless of background, which is why he has such rapport in the Fitzroy community. He believes the “average” folk who make up the local community are the bread and butter of his business.
Although I am still a bit scared to don an outrageous hat (when I’m not smoking a cigar and sipping rum on the screened-in porch of a tropical bungalow), Albert’s charisma was just about enough to turn me.
There are plenty of appropriate times to wear a Smart Alec cap, including: while attending a fancy dinner party, going to the theatre, playing a game of outdoor chess (notwithstanding any crazy Melbourne weather), or doing your Sunday-morning shopping.
In any occasion, Smart Alec has got you covered.
And who knows – it may just take you a visit or two to be donning hats with every outfit and wondering why you didn’t do so a long time ago.
To witness Albert’s millinery finesse for yourself, pop into Smart Alec (235 Gertrude Street) on any day of the week, where it’s almost guaranteed the man will be there, charming and styling customers from late morning til eve.
*And for a whole range of femme wear, don’t forget to head to Scally & Trombone, located right next-door.