New Iberia’s Colby Hebert combines a love of performing, costumes and culture to fit perfectly atop your head
“The hat we customize for you shouldn’t feel like this big thing on top of your head. It shouldn’t feel foreign — oh look at this guy with the hat on his head. It should be, ‘Oh yeah, there’s Tim.’ It fits right in.”
Seated at a desk passed down from his grandmother, custom hatmaker Colby Hebert speaks of an antiquated craft he’s help resuscitate using techniques borrowed from the 19th century. Odes to the past dot his storefront. Everything in here has a story, a purpose and a history. His hats do, as well.
A reflection of Acadiana, and its ancestors, prideful yet painful past, each hat features eloquent craftsmanship and design, but also is purposely aged and distressed.
“The hats have life, they got some soul, some history and some experience and some age,” Hebert says. “Not only am I trying to bring hats back. Not only am I trying to do it in the South, because why the hell would I do it in [Los Angeles], or New York, or Miami when I’m so passionate about my culture? But I’m also trying to tell the story of this area and the people.”
And the inspiration for all this?
Hebert watched a few YouTube videos.
Therein lies the delightful yin and yang of Hebert, a 27-year-old actor, set costumer and hatmaker who talks like a throwback to an earlier age, but still throws the word “like” into casual conversation. In the summer of 2016, Hebert became New Iberia’s first custom hatmaker in a century when he set up shop just off Main Street. Now based in New Orleans, Hebert has sold hundreds of hats, each designed to feel like a personal extension of the buyer rather than a fashion accessory. To Hebert, your friends’ reaction to you showing up without a hat should be the same as if you showed up missing a hand — it’s a part of you.
Raised by parents with a sense of style, Hebert was always fascinated with characters and costumes. Therefore, to the surprise of no one, Hebert gravitated toward Louisiana’s budding film industry earlier this decade and fully immersed himself in the eye of “Hollywood South.”
“You know, the passion for costumes and dressing up never went away, but doing that as an adult, people will think you’re crazy,” he says. “But they don’t think you’re crazy if you make a career out of it — so that’s what I did.”
After volunteering without pay for a friend as a costumer for a film in 2015, Hebert found paid gigs under the same title eight times with the next year, including a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime and the film “Strange Weather” starring Holly Hunter. Hebert had a knack for the work, confirmation of that coming from peers and the fact that he kept finding jobs.
“Hats have always appealed to me,” Hebert says. “Even as a young kid, hats were a way to stand out from the crowd, to be different … and as I started wearing hats on set, I developed a reputation for it. I got known for the hats. And I enjoyed being a performer, but to me there was something almost Old World about having a craft. It was appealing, freeing. And I started to think, maybe I could do both — acting and have a craft.”
There was just one problem — Hebert had no clue how to make a hat.
But, being an actor who prides himself into immersing himself into the characters he portrays, Hebert knows how to dig for information. So that’s what he did. He even read articles about hat making from old Italian newspapers. After about nine to 10 months of learning second-hand, Hebert sought face-to-face help — kind of a master-apprentice situation. Much like magicians, though, hatmakers aren’t quick to give up their tricks. Still, Hebert was persistent, and phoned 79-year-old Jim Whittington — a talented hatmaker from Utah who uses devices from the mid-1800s when the Mormons were first settling the area — and asked him about equipment.
“He told me, ‘Well, you obviously don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. The best thing you ought to do with your money is buy a plane ticket and come out and see me.’ And I was startled, but I was like, ‘OK. Amen.’ And within a half-hour I was buying a plane ticket.”
Whittington picked Hebert up from the airport, took him to the hat shop, gave him a four-day and four-night crash course in the art and even fed him dinner. Hebert, to this day and forever, remains beyond grateful. Admittedly, Hebert knows the microwave hat-making education he received doesn’t make him a master, but still feels he delivers a quality product while fulfilling a passion that’s particularly fitting.
“There’s just this vibe about the Hatmaker that no other artisan or craftsman carries,” Hebert says. “It’s the eccentricity of the character itself — The Mad Hatter. And that spoke to my personality — not worrying about keeping my hair a certain way, or getting too many tattoos because I’d be less marketable as an actor. In this, it doesn’t matter.
“I’m completely free to express myself to the fullest.”
So, are you like Frosty The Snowman? Do you only come to life when you have your hat on? It’s funny you mention Frosty, because when I’m without my hat, people ask, ‘Where’s the hat?’ But it is a part of who I am, an extension of who I am. And that’s what I try to do with my customers — build a hat that becomes a part of them.
Did you set up this hat business by accident? I don’t know if this was as accidental as it was organic. Because everything that contributed to the formation of the business was there all along, it just needed to come together. All of the places and things and experiences that I had, they were just finally utilized in this manner.
Your hats have a double sense of identity — not just with the buyer, but with the area — why is that? Everything that I can do to display and express the story of the Cajun culture, I do. I’ll speak with visitors in the shops about it for hours, if they’ll listen. Or I’ll take them home and cook them a gumbo.