Nick Onken is a Brooklyn-based multi-talented artist and photographer, whose latest creative endeavor includes a line of bespoke, handcrafted hats, inspired by his many adventures around the globe.
Nick’s positive attitude is infectious. No wonder our very own Web editor-in-chief fell in admiration with his beautiful energy, creative genius, and above all, his unique sense of style, while on a work trip with Nike. Nick was shooting the campaign, coiffed with the most playfully designed hat she had ever seen. Of course, she wanted to know more. Little did she know that looking into Nick’s bio meant diving head first into an inspiring rabbit hole, occupied my none other than the most prolific mad hatter. Simply put, Nick has a laundry list of talents and projects that have him travel all over the world. He’s photographed and interviewed countless inspiring personalities and celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Usher, Jessica Alba, and Bono, on his NIONradio podcast and for world-renowned magazines. His passport overflows with entry stamps: Europe, South America, Polynesia, you name it; he’s been there. He does, however, have a soft spot for Africa, where he champions the importance of education for the future generation, by taking stunning photographs for the charity, Pencils of Promise. We managed to catch up with Nick, in between 2 flights, to know more about what pushed him to add hat maker to his resume, and figure out how he constantly fuels his creativity.
Paulette: Hey Nick! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what is it that you do…
Nick: I am a creator, and one of my favorite mediums is hats. I hail from the soggy city of Seattle and am based in Brooklyn, New York, now. I like to weave deeper things in life with the things that I create.
How did your passion for hats come about?
A friend of mine, Satya, invited me to make hats with her in her hat factory a few years back, and I got curious about taking the designs in my own direction. It evolved as I played around with them.
Would you walk us through the process of making a hat? What are the steps and how long does it take?
The first step in making a hat is blocking it. Blocks come in many different shapes and that’s what creates the shape of the crown part of the hat. You then have to steam and stretch the felt over the block with a milliners string and shape it. Then flatten out the brim with an iron. Once that’s done, you spray stiffener on it to keep the shape. Then, I hand sew the sweatband inside. I like leather sweatbands, as it gives the hat some structure. From there, I start designing it, by picking out a fabric for the band around, burning the hat, or painting it. Maybe, all of those for a same hat. The design is pretty open ended at that point. I add my signatures, like a stick of Selenite, the highest vibrational stone.
Nice! Where does your inspiration come from?
My hats are inspired by my photography. I’ve always loved photographing people with hats. I get a lot of inspiration from my travels, as I’ve been to over 60 countries and 7 continents. I tend to make my hats look weathered and well traveled. I’m inspired by different cultures, by the patterns and textures they use in their different cloths and such. I also like finding vintage pins and other artifacts at flea markets. I also love painting on things. So, I’ve integrated that into some of my hat designs. Sometimes, I play around with different themes and find artifacts that help create that vibe.
Who do your hats cater to?
My hats cater to people that appreciate one of a kind bespoke items that no one else has. Typically people that want something unique with some personalized elements. They are high-end custom. A lot of times, people that are well traveled themselves.
Speaking of travels, what has been the most significant experience you’ve had or the most exciting trip you’ve taken in the past year?
I’ve had a few amazing trips this year. Traveling to Morocco was highly inspiring in regard to cultural nuances. I just got back from Madagascar, which I’d never been before. A category 4 hurricane chased us out. I also went to Finnish Lapland earlier this year, which was amazing. The North Pole is where reindeers and the Amanita muscaria mushrooms originate. I found an Amanita muscaria mushroom pin for a hat that I will use soon.
Making bespoke hats is just one of your many, many jobs. What’s the most exciting thing about doing so many different things?
I would personally call them passions, instead of “jobs”. When you love what you do, I don’t think it is necessarily a “job”. That said, I’m a photographer and I photograph a lot of people, from celebrities to kids in Africa for a charity called Pencils of Promise. I also have a podcast where I interview high-level creatives and people doing big things in the world. I love having conversations with these people. Occasionally, I paint murals and do other types of canvas art. I love the variety of creating in different mediums.
And lastly, where can we buy your bespoke hats?
You can head over to my Onkenhat Instagram account, and see what I’m working on hat wise. Feel free to DM me if you’re interested in getting your own custom hat.
Thank you, Nick!
Interview by PK Douglas
Find out more about Nick Onken here.