Open Studio at Maria Castelli: Elegant Bags to Covet


Cobalt blue bag is soft and chic.

Cobalt blue bag is soft and chic. (Brooklyn Artisan Photo Pool)

SORRY, FOLKS, THE DISCOUNT WAS JUST FOR THE DAY, last Saturday, the first Open Studios at Industry City in Sunset Park, and you missed it. But you can feast your eyes anyway, as Brooklyn Artisan did, while talking about the Maria Castelli business that just launched last month.

“We just launched,” daughter Veronica explained, “but we’ve been working on it for about a year and a half.” Though her lovely face was free of bags under her eyes or furrows in her brow, her expressive body language managed to suggest some weeks of round-the-clock effort.

“It’s a lot of work,” she confided, as her mother talked to a handful of serious-looking people on the other side of the room. Retail buyers, we hoped, who’d put dozens of these handsome bags into distribution.

Maria Castelli leather bag in black

As some Belle Dame d’Industry City might say, Chic is the thing with feathers.

The bags are rich looking with thick pebbled leather, yet flexible and almost slouchy in construction so that they’re easy to wear on your shoulder. (Just don’t load up with the Yellow Pages or bags of river rocks and you’ll be fine.) Although some small pouches on another table had the ubiquitous industrial zipper as design statement du jour as well a closure, the handsome shoulder-able bags were clean and as zipperless as Erica Jong’s famous **** (Fear of Flying).

We also liked the alternate bag in black that we spotted on a side shelf. The leather tassel of the blue version was replaced by two bunches of feathers on the black. Irresistably touchy-feely—in fact, we were quite tickled by them.

A co-founder of the erstwhile Getting It Gazette, Anne Mollegen Smith also writes about personal finance for 

See our other Industry City Open Studio coverage, with more to come later this week.

Top Off Your Style like Bogey or Sinatra. Or Walter White.

Founded in 1895 but not locally. It's a chain with more than two dozen stores in the US and two in Canada.

Founded in 1895 but not locally. There are more than two dozen stores in the US and two in Canada. (Large photo: Brooklyn Artisan Photo Pool)

WHAT COLOR WAS BOGEY’S FEDORA? Bogart in fedoraTough question. Brown? Gray? I’ve always envisioned Humphrey Bogart wearing a brown fedora in any of his fedora-wearing good-guy movies like Casablanca. The movie was released in black-and-white, but in the scandalously colorized version from the ‘80s his suit is muddy brown, Ingrid Bergman’s silky dress is muddy yellow, and so is Bogey’s pocket square. The characters’ faces are muddy pink. Except Sam, the piano player. So that’s no help.

If anyone knows, it would be the Goorin Bros.

Goorin Bros. is pronounced like Gorn, that sluggish green lizard man that Captain Kirk battles to the death in Star Trek, the original series. The Brooklyn store at 195 Fifth Avenue isn’t like the team cap wall at your local Modell’s sporting goods, or the cheapo hat pile at the open-air bodega up the avenue, the place where you can buy an emergency stocking cap or a cheapo stingy-brim Justin Timberlake knockoff fedora resting in a pile on a folding table, all colors and patterns, in all sizes from small, medium, large, and X-large. This is a real hat shop, with expansive plate-glass windows with Goorin Bros. Est. 1895 in gold-leaf lettering, and shelves inside brimming (Get it? Brimming?) with hats. Though the store has just opened for the day, it’s already brimming (Again! Hah!) with customers. In front, helping a couple, assistant shopkeeper Nicky Culter, wears a Homestead Grays baseball cap sideways while showing a customer straw boaters, perfect for the summer season. In back, near the cash register, shopkeeper Alex Mroz finishes ringing up three others. He wears a Mahi Mahi, a light brown straw fedora that goes with his sharp suit.

”Why do you keep your hat on indoors?” I ask him straight off. It’s an insulting question, but my dad used to slap my head when I wore my baseball cap at the dinner table.

“This is a hat store. People expect it,” Mroz says. “Or I just tell people I’m religious.” After all, Goorin Bros. does carry black fedoras for the Hasidic set.

While baseball caps are always fashionable, felt hats began dying off in the late 60s as men grew their hair longer and stopped slathering it with Brylcreem. But lately real hats have begun a resurgence. You see bowlers, fedoras, even the occasional boater on the streets of Brooklyn or in the subways or buses. Like everything, you want to point to television; personally, I attribute it to Mad Men. And Justin Timberlake.

“There are a lot of cultural emotions going on. Not only Mad Men, but Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey,” Mroz says. “It’s partly the neighborhood,” he adds. People here have so much style.”

I tell him that I’m looking for a brown Bogey fedora, vintage Casablanca or The Big Sleep. He says they don’t have any in brown, but offers a gray fedora, the type Bogey wears when he plays the villain, like The Roaring Twenties. I try one on, but I need a double-breasted suit and a gat (that’s 30’s gangster-speak for a revolver) to pull it off.

Mroz thinks I might be interested in something with a narrower brim, a “stingy brim” measuring between an inch and an inch and three-quarters. After all, they have a wide selection. Again, I think Timberlake.

“You can just imagine Sinatra wearing one, hanging at the Sands with Dino and Sammy,” he says. “Sinatra is one of our hat heroes.” And no doubt: There’s a picture of Sinatra, with a feather stuck in his hat band. Which reminds Mroz: “We have a Feather Bar, where you can customize you hat to make a unique statement,” he says.

You get this guy talking about hats and there’s no stopping him. “This is a genuine panama hat, woven in Ecuador,” he turns to the display on a middle table and searches for my size and fits it on my head. Nah. I’m not the cigar smoking type.

I discover a stack on the shelf. “Now this looks like one Buster Keaton wore in his movies,” I say.

“It’s called The Buster. Keaton used to make his own hats.” Talk about small-batch artisanal. Except for the band, The Buster is barely discernable from the one Harold Lloyd wore while hanging off a clock in Safety Last.

“It’s a classic men’s summer hat—men wore them with the bands in their school colors,” he explains. And there’s a framed photo of a crowd of young men, apparently well dressed college men, though all you can really see is the tops of their straw boaters.

Goorin’s is not just about men’s hats: There are women’s in all shapes and sizes, the types that gals would wear in the Easter Parade on the Avenue, Fifth Avenue, when a photographer would snap them and they’d find themselves in the rotogravure. There are cloches and pillboxes, though nothing outrageously weird that Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice wore to Wills and Kate’s wedding.

Still, it’s a store where guys are happy to shop. There are top hats like Lincoln wore, though his measured a foot and a half high. Here they’re around half that height. And plenty of flat caps, which started as aristocracy wear, when the landed gentry would ride off with their shotguns and dogs chasing some poor fox. It usually ended badly for the fox. Within a few years they were co-opted by the city’s lower classes, like cabbies and newsies. Maybe flat caps should be renamed “The foxes revenge.”

Mroz shows me one last hat, a dark, wide-brimmed porkpie. “In Breaking Bad, Walter White wears one to be intimidating when he’s trying to collect money,” he says. I put it on and just look goofy. “You have to wear it with gusto,” he says.

No matter whether I have gusto or not, the prices are pretty reasonable. The lowest is $21, and handmades start at $79.

Handmade? That’s why I ordered a handcrafted brown fedora, just like Bogey wore in Casablanca. It’ll probably go great with my blue jeans, running shoes, and my Steely Dan t-shirt.

Executive Editor Phil Scott is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles on travel, aviation, science, humor and brain health. He is teaching a journalism class at John Jay High School in Brooklyn.

Sipping Moonshine & Bourbon at The Kings County Distillery

YOU GET A NICE DOSE OF HISTORY AND 3 SIPS OF WHISKY for your $8 on a typical Saturday afternoon between 2:30 and 5:30, in Building 121, the old Paymaster quarters at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Brooklyn Artisan took the tour on Sunday, a special opening for the distillery’s participation in Open House New York.

The Boozeum displays a home-size copper distiller.

The Kings County Distillery bills itself as New York City’s oldest operating whisky distillery – founded in 2010 by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, on a porch in Bushwick, and relocated last year to the Navy Yard in Williamsburg. In their new-but-old building (built at the turn of the last century), space is given to a modest wall display of photos. It features readably-large repro’s of historic documents and a lively old-newspaper account of a local battle in the “Whisky Wars” fought not long after the Civil War ended.

Triggering the Vinegar Hill riots, troops from the Naval Yard were sent into the “Irishtown” neighborhood to close down 13 illicit stills. Vast quantities of distillery waste water poured out into  the streets. Twenty people were killed. (When a rum-maker’s vat in Boston burst, molasses in an eight-foot wave made a micro-tsunami in the narrow street. Imagine the sticky aftermath. And the flies. No business for sissies.)

The federal action on distilleries was not about temperance, it was about taxes; excise taxes, not taxes on income, had funded the Civil War. After the war, the feds wanted to shut down any stills that weren’t paying up. Only after income-based taxation was legislated early in the 20th century could the country afford Prohibition and the loss of revenue from “sin taxes” on booze.

The history display is called the Boozeum, and I’m glad to report that the same sense of humor about themselves and their “evolving” whisky-hist’ry show pervades the whole operation and spares it any whiff of pretentiousness. They take themselves lightly, but as a native Kentuckian, Colin Spoelman has maintained from the beginning that they are serious about their bourbon. His home state’s Nelson County is widely considered the beating heart of bourbon country. Last year, with the move to the bigger distillery, Colin gave up his day job with an architecture firm to grow the business. Now, that is being serious.

The Mash: Hot water liquifies the starch in corn, then enzymes from sprouting barley seed break down the starches. Bourbon mash is 70% corn, 30% barley.

A third partner, Nicole Austin (above), has joined the founders and now oversees operations. She studied chemical engineering in college, though not with this career in mind. “It was kind of like a lightbulb going off,” she says, “I thought, Hey, I bet I know how to make this.” In its early days in Bushwick, the distillery bottled up to 270 liters of corn and barley based whisky a month, less than one tenth of what they now can produce in the Paymaster building.

Nicole also conducted the Sunday tour we joined, discussing the progress of distilling from American corn and Scottish barley “mash,” through yeast-processing, batch-testing and tasting, and then aging in the proper new American-oak barrels that must be used if the spirits are to qualify as legitimate bourbon.

About two years ago New York State started defining “farm distillery “ or Class D licenses more broadly, Nicole explains, which means that small-batch producers legally can distill, bottle and wholesale spirits themselves. Apple producers and farmers lobbied heavily for the change in law. With no more required cut for separately licensed distributors, the economics as well as the legal climate have suddenly become much more attractive. The Kings County Distillery was fast out of the gate. Now, Austin says, there are a dozen licensed distillers in the city (not all of them up and going yet) and two dozen or more in the state. [Read more…]

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