Hamburg hats for Macklemore, Udo Lindenberg and me?

Felts from Falkenhagen

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Hats are being worn again - even in Hamburg, and preferably in the shape of something "soft, small, that won't blow off easily in the wind". Hut Falkenhagen in the Old Town supplies the city with headgear from the discreetly elegant to the wildly eccentric, and has done for the last 100 years. I pay a visit.

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Andra Wöllert

Andra Wöllert prefers writing, talking and dancing about subculture, lifestyle, music and social topics – mainly in Hamburg.

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Photos: Roeler

I'm just not the type for hats. It's mainly because of my long, thick curls, which force their way to freedom unattractively every time I put one on. Hats just don't suit me. However, when I tell Sabine Falkenhagen about my hat/hair dilemma, she just smiles and shakes her head. “Of course it's hard in your case, with your luxuriant mane,” says the hat expert. However, to her that's all in a day's work: finding the right style, even for sceptics like myself, “and when they leave the shop happy afterwards, that's great”.

We're sitting in the workroom of her shop, Hut Falkenhagen. Between us is a hat steamer, which looks a bit like a soldering iron with a snail's shell. The water vapour makes old hats soft again or prepares new felt for shaping. Behind us, modiste Nadia Bunge is busy at the workbench. The clientele includes hat fans from all over Germany and shopping tourists, mainly from Denmark, they buy new caps or have their favourite hats refurbished.

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Sabine Falkenhagen is the fourth generation in charge.

The generously-sized showroom of this traditional shop in the middle of the Old Town accommodates hundreds of head coverings. Most are normal merchandise, but there are also many articles from the small German hat and cap manufactories, Hamburg designers or the shop's own collection. Sustainability is important to Sabine Falkenhagen. The display shelves along the walls are her witnesses to bygone days, because the frames are from the Hamburg family's old millinery shops. The company's history goes back more than 100 years.

When Macklemore's hat doesn't fit

Great-grandmother Anna Falkenhagen opened the original milliner's store in the Sternschanze district of Hamburg in 1916. Sabine Falkenhagen is now the fourth generation in charge. They've had to move no fewer than four times since then. The shop has been at Schauenburgerstraße 47, next to the Hamburg Town Hall, for two years now – in the best of company with a bespoke tailor and a leather footwear shop. “All the most important sights are here, the churches, the port and the HafenCity – so the tourists are here as well. Not only that, but a lot of Hamburg residents come into the Old Town to shop. They find our shop right at the heart of it,” says the businesswoman.

At the moment, photographs reign above the shop shelves. Hamburg heads wearing all kinds of headgear smile at me from the pictures. The portraits are by photographer Tom Rölecke, aka Roeler. He approached interestingly behatted, beturbaned, bescarved passers-by over a period of five years and asked them to model for him. The results of his “Hamburg's Heads 'n' Hats” project have been exhibited at Hut Falkenhagen since September, and will remain there till the end of the year – marking the milliner's 100th anniversary. “We invited everyone round for the opening and celebrated hats and us.”

A photo project by Tom Rölecke (Roeler)

"Hamburg's Heads 'n' Hats"

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But interesting heads don't just gaze out of photos in this venue, they come into the shop in person as well. Actors, professional footballers, musicians and “Sternchen-goes “ TV presenter Silvie Meis shop here – as does Udo Lindenberg. Hamburg's cult musician has been faithful to Hut Falkenhagen for more than 30 years, “because we look after him here in the workshop. We fit his hats with precision. The hat has to sit perfectly, for Udo”. Modiste Nadia also recalls an encounter with a platinum-selling US rapper: “We've had Macklemore in here. I think because he was playing the Hurricane Festival. His crew had given him a hat as a birthday gift, but it was a size too big for him. So he came into the shop and changed it for the right one”.

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Modiste Nadia at work

The prototypical Hamburg hat-wearer

And if they don't have the client's desired model in stock, they make it. From a bowler hat in leopard print to a flame-red hat with an extremely high crown for the perfect look on Sunday outings to the Black Community Church, Hut Falkenhagen is there for you. “We do have a lot of individual heads among Hamburg people,” Sabine sums up.

However, according to Falkenhagen's expertise, the prototypical Hamburg hat-wearer remains true to his Hanseatic mindset: “Mostly they want something soft, small, that won't blow off easily in the wind. The kind of headgear they can wear every day but isn't too pretentious. An old favourite, in a word”. But in the face of all gender-specific clichés, it seems the gentlemen are more likely to know what's in fashion. Hat brims are now getting broader again – and demand has promptly risen. And when it comes to brims, don't forget: “high at the back, low at the front”.

I'm told more elegance is now going to Hamburg's heads. Caps are giving way to hats, including for women. The hat is clearly making a comeback. And everyone loves this family business. “A 25-year-old man once told me 'my grandfather bought from you back in the day'”, the boss remembers. Other clients are “so ancient” that they even remember her grandmother, whom “myself, I don't really remember at all. I feel really touched when that happens”.

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The Falkenhagen's have been crafting headgear of all sorts since 1916.

Even I am gradually coming round to hats. So what would be the perfect model with my mane? Nadia chooses a style for me, a hat with a broad brim, and before I try it on she suggests a trick. I should wear my curls over my shoulder on just one side, it will feel lighter. The plan works: the hat's in place, feels loose, there's ventilation, and I don't have any hair in my face. Maybe I'll soon be buying one after all.