Caroline Hafele of Gem Hats Wants To Turn You Into A Hat Person

Caroline Hafele walks blindly in Bécal, a tiny village in Yucatán. She had heard of a “magic little hat town” – the village itself built around a statue of a Spanish-style hat – and she had to see for herself. Traveling alone, she finds herself at this landmark, simply hoping to somehow meet the families that run the village. Befriending local kids, they guide her to the homes of the town millenaries. 

Showing up at their door, they welcome her in warmly, as if they’ve been expecting her all along. They eagerly show her their creations, the craft these families have perfected over generations of hat-making. 

Caroline Hafele, 303 Magazine, 303 Fashion, Lexi Donaldson, Gem Hats

Photo by Roxanna Carrasco

Walking into Hafele’s in-home studio on Vrain Street, it feels reminiscent of this tale. Walls filled floor to ceiling with handmade hats of all shapes and colors, you’ll find that Gem Hats, a Denver-based custom hat company, has brought a mini Bécal right here to Denver.

Caroline Hafele’s career has always been dedicated to helping other small businesses. She has lived in 8 different countries supporting entrepreneurs, her work taking her from Italy to Jordan to the Czech Republic.

At the beginning of 2020, Hafele accepted a position at a fashion tech start-up in Latin America, her only other time working in the fashion industry. While living in Mexico City, she was struck by the massive hat culture in that community, an observation that would soon turn into an obsession.

“Hats aren’t that prevalent anywhere else. They’re big in Europe. but very different styles. In the U.K. they wear hats to every wedding, but it’s more of this formal thing,” explained Hafele. “These hats you can wear out on the town for brunch, it’s not something you just wear once.” 

After watching one of her friends design a hat from scratch, Hafele was inspired to try it for herself. With materials readily available from nearby villages, she dove in headfirst to the art of millinery.

“I started designing hats, buying the hat base and then designing them at home. I’d send them to my sisters and friends back home. It was a lot of experimenting, but I was just obsessed,” said Hafele. 

Caroline Hafele, 303 Magazine, 303 Fashion, Lexi Donaldson, Gem Hats

Photo by Roxanna Carrasco

When Hafele was forced to return home to Louisville, Kentucky just a few months later due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she brought her newfound passion with her. She took this opportunity to learn the process from scratch, making everything from the base to the stitching by hand. With no background in fashion or art, she taught herself through YouTube videos, old millinery books and following other hatters online. 

It took from March to September of 2020 to master her craft, feeling confident enough to make one for herself and wear it out. As she started to make them for family and friends and word of mouth began to spread, Hafele had the opportunity to take her hobby to the next level. 

“I noticed there’s a big gap in the market,” explained Hafele. “There are hats you can get at major chain stores for $15 dollars that are one size fits all, not super comfortable, and just cheaply made. Or you have the super-premium hats. Those are made out of rabbit and beaver felt, which is extremely expensive and not very sustainable.”

Caroline Hafele, 303 Magazine, 303 Fashion, Lexi Donaldson, Gem Hats

Photo by Roxanna Carrasco

On a mission to create beautifully crafted yet affordable hats, Gem Hats launched first as an Instagram page before officially becoming a company in May of 2021. Endlessly encouraged by her sisters, Hafele selected a name that would pay tribute to her biggest supporters. 

“I have a twin sister, and I have two younger sisters who are also twins. The word for twin in Spanish is Gemillo. I have always said that if I started the business, I would incorporate Gem,” said Hafele. 

The logo pays a similar tribute, four lines with a squiggle to represent the mathematical symbol for congruency – a tattoo all four sisters share. 

Caroline Hafele, 303 Magazine, 303 Fashion, Lexi Donaldson, Gem Hats

Photo by Roxanna Carrasco

 “I think this is the best way to honor my sisters, it’s just a meaningful thing to me,” said Hafele. Gem Hats can best be described as a Fedora or Spanish style – a casual hat meant to be worn on days brewery hopping around RiNo or sitting by the fire on a camping trip. Clients can select from three materials – wool felt, suede and straw – with different brim and crown styles offered with each. Hats start at $130, with full customizations starting at $225. Hafele offers everything from embroideries to vintage fabrics to burn art to ensure that each hat is truly one of a kind. 

“95% of the design materials I use are repurposed. Vintage fabrics, repurposed belts and ties, there’s just no way to make one in the same,” said Hafele. As a thrifter at heart, Hafele’s favorite fabric she’s used on a hat is from a green silk dress she bought off the street in Palestine. 

Naturally dyed with local fruits and vegetables, the base of the wool and suede hats are imported from two families in Mexico. The straw hats, made from the Jipijapa leaf seldom found in the United States, come from the family she visited in Bécal. These villages’ entire economies are based on hat-making, and it is important to her to support these small families every step of the way. 

“They have a limited capacity, they are doing every single hat by hand,” explained Hafele. “I can’t place an order for 10,000 hats, that would take them years. They work on a smaller scale. I love them, they are the best.” 

Caroline Hafele, 303 Magazine, 303 Fashion, Lexi Donaldson, Gem Hats

Photo by Roxanna Carrasco

But beyond the stunning colors and customizations, it is the comfortability of the hats that truly sets Gem apart. Along with custom head measurements, Hafele utilizes an elastic sweatband to ensure perfect sizing. She compares the fit of a hat to the fit of a ski boot, the wrong one will make for a very long day. 

“Most hats have a leather sweatband, which makes it much more difficult to fit different head shapes and sizes,” said Hafele. “I constantly hear about the comfort, the elastic just gives it so much more wiggle room.” 

Gem Hats operates by the motto “it’s time to make you a hat person.” Many of Hafele’s clientele have never tried on her style of hat before, and have no idea where to even begin. Unsurprisingly, she finds even the biggest skeptic typically becomes a repeat customer. 

Caroline Hafele, 303 Magazine, 303 Fashion, Lexi Donaldson

Photo by Roxanna Carrasco

“Most of our clients are first-time hat buyers who we have converted into full-on hat people. It makes me so happy to see,” said Hafele. 

Offering both online consultations and in-studio visits, Hafele welcomes clients into her home with the same warmth she found in the village of Bécal.

“Come by, even if it’s just to explore and try on,” said Hafele. “In the end, a hat is such an element of confidence. The reason I wear a hat, which is all the time now, is because it’s such a fun way to express your style. Everyone is so different, and you can really make your hat unique to you.” 

Founded by Caroline Hafele, Gem Hats is a custom hat company based in Denver, Colorado. For more information or to book an appointment, visit their website or follow them on Instagram

All photography by Roxanna Carrasco