April 2024MAIN STORY

The Art of the Haberdasher: In St. Louis, That Means Levine’s


By Bill Motchan, via JNS.org

Years ago, early in his career, Rabbi James Bennett was officiating a graveside funeral on a cold, winter day. The senior rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis wore a small kippah on his head, but he was shivering. Following the service, the late Ed Levine walked over to Bennett, handed him a business card and said, “Rabbi, come see me.”

Levine was the longtime owner of Levine Hat Company, which celebrates its 120th year in business in 2023. Following Levine’s request, Bennett visited the Levine showroom in downtown St. Louis and was fitted with a wool fedora.

“It’s still my favorite hat to wear when officiating at official duties in the cold of winter, and I always think of Ed and his kindness when I wear it,” Bennett said. “I always recommend Levine hats to anyone asking where to get a good hat and to be treated with personal attention and kindness.”

In the fickle and unpredictable fashion industry, Levine Hat Company is something of an outlier. The business casual style of dress has taken its toll on the suit industry. Fedoras were common accessories for the first half of the 20th century. They became less prevalent as styles shifted to more informal dress for work and leisure.

Still, Levine Hat Company has survived. That has required the company to pivot several times.

“We work hard at it,” said Lance Levine, the fourth-generation owner of the company. “We’re also agile and not afraid to try new products. We switched from manufacturing to retailing and then to starting our own brands, then to wholesaling and e-commerce. But we’re very careful to keep some of our old-school charm. The layout of the store looks a lot like it did 120 years ago, with the wooden hat racks, and all the hats are in sight. You don’t see that a lot in other stores.”

Levine, 41, said the market for hats has changed radically since the company opened in 1903.

“A lot of things damaged the business and made hats fall out of fashion,” he said. “People started shampooing their hair every day and started driving to work instead of walking. They were spending less time outside and casual dress has been trending up.”

There is no one demographic segment that routinely buys Levine’s products. Levine said the store attracts all ages and ethnicities. It is especially popular with a hip, artistic clientele, particularly musicians. Billy Ray Cyrus has visited the store, as have members of Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones. Former President Bill Clinton, Cedric the Entertainer and former professional basketball player Shaquille O’Neal have also been Levine customers.

“My father told me the story where there was a hand-printed sign in the window next to a hat display with the name of the hat on it,” Levine said. “Keith Richards was in the store and got such a kick out of the sign, he said ‘I’ll buy the hat, but I have to have the sign.’”

Origins in Minsk

The company’s founder, Benjamin Levine (Lance’s great-grandfather) came to America in the early 1900s from Minsk, Russia, where the family had a hat fabrication company. After immigrating to the United States, they settled in Kansas City and started a dry-cleaning business. Levine family lore suggests that Benjamin accidentally damaged an expensive suit and forced him to leave town. It was a short trip across the state, and St. Louis had a vibrant clothing industry.

Levine Hat Company began operating in the downtown St. Louis garment district, where it remained until the 1940s. The store eventually moved a few blocks west to a 30,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse. Originally, workers would manufacture the hats in the back of the building every morning and then sell them in the storefront throughout the day.

The hat business has changed significantly since then, and Levine no longer makes hats on the premises. The company does some wholesale manufacturing, but it’s known as a major hat retailer. In fact, Levine has the largest retail hat store in the world, gauged by floor space and hats displayed. It sells top brands like Stetson, Henschel, Knox and Kangol. Levine also offers two of its own brands: Levine and 9th Street.

Since the beginning, the company has been run by a Levine. Benjamin’s son Louis succeeded him. His son Edward (who died in 2017) ran the company for years. Edward’s wife, Carole, still works for the company as a bookkeeper.

“There was a time when the business was struggling a bit,” Lance Levine said. “I have a technical bent, so I was able to get a website up and running. We were on the e-commerce bandwagon long before anybody else was, around 2000. It’s grown a lot since then, but that’s how I got started. Then I found I really enjoyed it.

Levine said he especially enjoys developing new styles.

“I love seeing my ideas come to life, particularly designing hats,” he said. “We work with vendors to get them right. If I want a feather that looks like a cardinal, I can make that happen—from a sketch to the finished product.”

Levine Hat Company in St. Louis. Photo by Bill Motchan.

The company still strives to maintain a high level of customer service. That translates to repeat business. Levine said he frequently sees customers who have been buying Levine hats for many decades. Rabbi James Bennett is one of those regulars.

“I am a big fan of the Levine Hat Company and the Levine family,” Bennett said. “The Levine Hat Company’s longevity is, in my opinion, due to this kindness and down-to-earth nature that has always been their approach to people and to business. Ed learned this way of doing business from his family, and Lance continues to treat people with that same decency and respect.”

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light.


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