Hat making was becoming a lost art, but it’s making a comeback with a new generation of makers who are reviving the tradition with fresh eyes. After apprenticing to a hat maker in San Francisco, Olivia Griffin and her husband Rick Quisol opened a vintage emporium with the intriguing moniker The Mysterious Rack. Vintage wares were soon expanded to include Olivia’s beautiful handcrafted chapeaus. They recently relocated their family and business to Louisville, Kentucky. What better place for a hat maker than Derby country? Olivia is a woman of many talents and charms. She’s a gifted artist, a top notch promoter, and a savvy entrepreneur. She sells her hats and hand crafted fashions in the shop under the label Made by Humans.
We’re excited to introduce this dynamic young woman, who has managed to turn her passion for design into a thriving business.
You studied costume and apparel design at San Francisco State University. I am an actress, but I’ve spent plenty of time working behind the scenes and many hours working in the costume shop. Costuming is a huge amount of work, and it’s a real labor of love. The Mysterious Rack sells one of a kind handcrafted clothing and hand made hats under the Made by Humans brand. Do you ever design for the theater? Tell us a little about your journey.
When I started college at SFSU, my first major was dance. I danced and performed and choreographed a lot in high school, and I really wanted to be a dancer and performer. My hopes were quickly crushed when I started dance classes at SFSU, as I realized the classes I had taken in high school did not prepare me for the technique I needed at a university level. It was at that point that I found out about the Costume Design major, I didn’t even realize such a thing existed. You could study that? You could build costumes for a living? (kind of). So I switched my major to theater arts and dove in. However, a year later, I still missed dance, so I decided to double major. I ended up doing a lot of the costuming work for the dance department, and even managed to get into the University Dance Theater Company and perform. After my second year, I had in interest in the Apparel Design and Merchandising program because the classes were very different than costuming classes. There were proper textiles and patterning classes, and sketching classes, all appealing to me. I sat down with an advisor, and he told me to triple major! Not something a lot of people did at the time. I took a full year of Apparel Classes, finished my other two major requirements, and had one year left of Apparel classes when the economy tanked and the university literally graduated me on the fact that I had so many units. I was fairly upset at the time and wanted to finish my apparel degree, but the timing ended up being divine because I was in the process of buying an antique hat shop and apprenticing with the owner.
There is a resurgence of energy around Main Street here in America. A desire for soulful, sustainable, hand made goods is emerging, there’s a shift happening. We’ve been buried under ‘fast fashion’ from places like Forever 21 and H&M. There’s a bit of burn out for consumers and it’s affecting sales at traditional retail chains. It’s an interesting time. You’re part of a movement that is gaining steam, an antidote to mass consumption. What are your thoughts about that, what drove you to open The Mysterious Rack?
It is such an interesting time. I do so hope that this movement of buying intentionally, buying consciously, is gaining steam. I have been sewing and creating and making since I was a small child, and now as a business owner, I truly understand not only the time but material costs that go into making something. When I look at clothing items at Walmart or Forever 21 and see the price tags it makes me sick. Because I know how many corners were cut, how much pollution went into growing cheap cotton, how much dye was tossed into rivers in 3rd world countries, how little people are being paid to make this clothing, and most importantly, how undervalued apparel and accessories are in America. As fewer and fewer people make things by hand, it’s hard for people to comprehend how much time and work goes into something. Every day at my shop I am giving people an education about the quality of the materials in their clothing, how the time of someone is worth something. I never thought I would own and operate my own retail fronts, but after buying a hat shop with partners, I fell in love with business, being a natural born leader, and I knew I needed to open my own store independent of partners.
You left San Francisco for Louisville with your husband Rick Quisol and your children. I’ve known Rick for many years, he’s wildly creative. You’re a perfect match for each other. You’re life and business partners, which can be challenging. What inspired the move? Why Louisville? What challenges have you faced with the move and the business?
We accidentally moved to Louisville. If you talk to a lot of people here, that’s a common situation. You come to Louisville for a short time, and then you instantly fall in love and are swept away by the luscious scenery, the warmest people, and a healthy culture of art and music. Once we found “our people” here, and saw the price of real estate, we knew we had to leave the Bay Area behind. It was a hard decision, but it made the most sense. Partially because the Kentucky Derby is here, the biggest “hat” event in the country, and partially because we wanted to build a better life for us and our children. It’s been challenging because I have had to rebuild my business almost from scratch, marketing to a different subset of the population, and learning the demographics of different parts of the city. I have moved my shop 3 times, but I know I’m in the right place in the heart of downtown Louisville near all the hotels.
It’s obvious that you love color. I’m a color lover myself. So much of how we feel is informed by our environment. Your work is so vibrant, playful, and fun. You have a wonderful sense of whimsy. Have you always been fearless when it comes to color and design? Are you inspired by any particular sources or is design more of an ongoing dialogue for you?
I’ve never been afraid of color. For most of my teenage years my hair was bright neon orange, it started there and hasn’t stopped. I am so visual, and very playful, I like to get people to wonder and smile, which is why the name of my store is “the Mysterious Rack.” It’s cheeky. Sometimes I’m inspired by the past, mostly though I get images in my head that won’t go away until I make them. I don’t really follow any other designers, I’ve always forged my own sense of fashion. I have fashion ADD, I change my hair color, my look, the layout of my store, the hats I’m making, all the time. I want to push myself way outside the box, and I assist customers in pushing their style boundaries as well. I believe that people who take the time to put themselves together in a fresh and interesting look provide food for the eyes of the wandering public, it’s refreshing to see someone looking fantastic in the middle of your humdrum day.
My sister-in-law drives carriages at horse events here in Chester County, PA. Fabulous hats are required! Has being in Derby Country been exciting? What’s it like during Derby season?
Derby Season is truly magical. It is truly a season. It starts weeks before derby with the biggest firework show in the country, then a hot air balloon race, a steamboat race, a parade, a marathon, and numerous cocktail parties later, the actual Kentucky Derby happens the first weekend in May. That week is fantastic, people are parading around in bright, cheerful outfits and hats, everyone is trying to push their style boundaries. It makes me very happy. Of course, I don’t get to go the Derby, because I’m up all night making custom hats…. 😉
You took the time to hone your craft, apprenticing with Paul’s Hat Works in San Francisco. You studied costume design. You’re going back to school to study business. It’s obvious that you take this seriously. A lot of people make a few things, get a few compliments, and think they should start selling items. There’s a quality issue in a lot of what is sold online. What advice would you share with people in terms of how to prepare for success? Can you speak to the importance of honing your skills?
I take what I do very seriously. I have no interest in working for someone else, and so I have to keep improving as a business owner. I am currently getting my MBA in Entrepreneurship, I’m only 3 weeks in and already learning tons and am flooded with more business ideas. I have a hat shop, but I also started a daycare in my home, I have a podcast and event series called Cocktails with Creatives, I’m getting involved in a new fashion hub that’s being built, I host fashion shows out on the street, and I’m investing in real estate. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s a fine line. Have a few revenue streams if you can, because they all are probably cyclical. I can assure you I will own many more businesses in my lifetime, some will fail, some already have, and I may continue pursuing different types of education as well.
I think that a lot of people who think it’s fun to make stuff and want to start selling it don’t realize how much back end business is necessary. It’s A LOT of computer work, graphic design, marketing plans, emails, sourcing, posting, social media. And since DIY is coming back, you have a lot of competition. Etsy is flooded with people, how are you going to stand out? Quality and customer service is key, if you have loyal customers who believe in your products and want all your newest designs, you will survive. It’s not about vanity metrics, you could have 100,000 followers on Instagram, but how many of them actually buy your things? 100? Start with one customer at a time. If you bought your product, what would you expect, and how can you exceed expectations?
What’s next for The Mysterious Rack? Where can folks find you online and in person?
Going to grad school for 3 weeks has already paved the new path for the Mysterious Rack. I need to scale up my business a bit, and that means turning at least 50% of my focus on trade shows and wholesale. This is something I have never done, so once again, I need to educate myself, pick the brains of people who are already doing it well, and figure it out.
You can see hats for sale, and photos from some great shoots we have done at Griffin Hatters. If you sign up for my newsletter on my website, you will become a part of a very interactive email that I send out once a month, where I talk honestly about business and fashion. Our shop is at 558 S. 4th Street, here we sell our hats, take custom hat orders, sell handmade apparel, some I designed, some others designed, as well as hand made jewelry, and soon, more accessories, these items aren’t for sale on our website, but we feature them on our instagram: @themysteriousrack. I would love to hear from any readers, if they have any questions or comments! I will answer all the emails personally! firstname.lastname@example.org.