From Shtreimels to a contemporary Western style: The designer behind Oliver Lewis Hats

Rich Faison poses with his unique hats.
Rich Faison poses with his unique hats.
Photos courtesy of Rich Faison

A local fashion maestro credits his unique fashion sense to his Brooklyn-born-and-raised roots.

Rich Faison, who grew up in Flatbush, has long paid special attention to the cultural dynamics of his hometown, and has integrated those Italian, Black, Jamaican, and Trinidadian influences into his work — including his renowned hat manufacturing business. 

Still, his contemporary take on Western style comes from his father.

“He used to be really into Clint Eastwood movies and stuff like that. I started looking up the history of cowboys and [saw] how Mexican and Black guys were the first cowboys. Just looking at their style, I got so interested in it. I tried cowboy boots one day, it just really spoke to me as they say,” said Faison. 

That love for Western culture has become a defining characteristic within his wardrobe. 

Yet, what garners the most attention are the embellished Western hats he has incorporated into his everyday style since the age of 13.

“It’s a conversation starter,” Faison said. “It kind of tells people who you are, what’s your style, and what’s your personality. It adds more character to what you’re wearing and it’s a bit of boldness.”

It wasn’t until 2020, when Faison returned to Brooklyn, after pursuing film for eight years in Toronto, that his love for the accessory turned into a career. 

A Hasidic friend from his old Flatbush community reached out offering an apprenticeship in making shtreimels — the fur hats worn by Ashkenazi Jewish men for holidays and festive occasions. 

“When you see hats and you buy them, you’re like ‘alright that’s nice.’ But once you’re making it from scratch, you just start seeing it and understanding all of the intricacies about it; it is just so much more beautiful in an art form,” said Faison. “Once I realized I genuinely wanted to pursue that and not film anymore, it was really challenging because it’s your identity. People knew me as Rich the film maker.”

Faison trained under his friend and learned the art of making shtreimels, a process that takes around 1,200 hairs per hat and three months to make. When the shtreimel is finished, a rabbi puts it on and dances to see how the hat bounces. After it is tested, it then goes through the process of being blessed before it is handed off to the client. 

After two years of making shtreimels, Faison realized he wanted to venture into the hat making industry on his own. His boss affirmed his decision, kickstarting him into starting his own company.

“He said something to me that was one of the most beautiful and horrible things ever. He was like, ‘I’ll never be able to pay you what you deserve.’ For this guy to say that, he really respects my craft, but he understands he’ll never be able to do it for me,” said Faison.

Faison started Oliver Lewis Hats in Sept. 2022. He named his company after Oliver Lewis – a Black jockey who was the first to ever win the Kentucky Derby – drawing inspiration from his interest in Black Western culture and his love for bold, statement hats. 

“When I tell people that he was the first person to win and that he was Black, it’s such a weird thing because you never hear about Black jockeys winning the Kentucky Derby; you don’t even associate Black people with the Kentucky Derby,” said Faison. “When you think about the Kentucky Derby, you think about the fancy hats and how people show up to it. The correlation of the two together was just perfect.” 

Faison makes the Oliver Lewis hats out of his Brooklyn apartment. His collection ranges anywhere from rabbit hair fur felt bucket hats embellished with various ornaments to his signature hat “The Paige,” which features a Western brim with fire matches lining the band and a match strip under the hat for functionality. 

“I’m down to try new things. I think most hat makers are pretty conventional or they follow a lot of trends. I’ve always had this idea, when it came to even the way I dress or the way I am, that I want to try things that are new and different. I don’t want to come in and try to make things better, I just want to try something absolutely new,” said Faison.

While his hats are for sale on his website, through weekly in-house appointments, and at various markets — including the upcoming Greenpointer’s Valentine’s Market on Feb. 12, much of the attention comes from wearing his own products. Faison has been posted by various fashion platforms, including the street style instagram account @watchingnewyork, and is often stopped by strangers on the street.

“I’ve been to tons of places just standing around when somebody is like ‘amazing hat,’ and I’ll just be like ‘I made this.” The conversations you have with people after that, it’s just one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Faison.

With future hopes of opening a store in Brooklyn, he wants to expand the contemporary Western style of Oliver Lewis Hats into clothing.

“Eventually, I want to take Oliver Lewis from just a hat brand to a brand in general; I want Oliver Lewis to be a whole lifestyle. I want to make sure there’s always something in motion, always having people and creating a community,” said Faison.