Harlem, like many other neighborhoods throughout the country, has been hit by the wrath of gentrification. According to Governing, 20 percent of low-income communities have been gentrified. In New York City specifically, over 12 percent of neighborhoods are experiencing gentrification at an accelerated pace impacting the people and businesses that have been in these local communities for years. In the midst of Harlem’s ever-changing landscape stands Hats by Bunn; a bespoke hat shop that has been in the neighborhood for nearly two decades.
The boutique opened its doors in 2002, but Brooklyn-bred designer Mr. Bunn—the man behind the shop—has been serving the community long before that. His Harlem journey started as a street vendor in the 80s with a table in the heart of the neighborhood on 125th Street and Lenox. Once his business grew he decided to open a brick-and-mortar location. “I was sewing hats out of my house,” he said. “I came to do the Harlem Week Festival in the 80s and that’s when I started as a street vendor. I also was supplying a few stores in the community with hats. These were stepping stones for me. I just liked the energy in Harlem. It was trendy, cultural and conscious. On 125th Street everybody was selling something, whether it be incense, jewelry, black soap or African fabrics. It was an exciting time.” Prior to the current location at 2283 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. he had a store on 135th Street in Harlem in the 90s.
His store is lined with hats for any occasion. From fedoras to cocktail hats and velvet to chenille, Mr. Bunn describes his creations as “classic originals for all seasons.” He prides himself on being able to bring any imaginative vision of a hat that a customer may have to fruition. Using what he calls “wearable art,” he empowers individuals to express their style through one of the most crucial pieces of an outfit, a hat.
Over the past few decades, Mr. Bunn has witnessed the changes in the community; especially amongst the entrepreneurs. He’s seen businesses that were embedded in the fabric of the neighborhood shutter due to rising rents and other factors; a common narrative for Black business owners in New York City. According to a report from the Office of the New York City Comptroller, between the years of 2007 and 2012, Black-owned businesses in the city declined by 30 percent.
Despite the staggering statistic, Mr. Bunn is one of the entrepreneurs who has been able to thrive in the face of gentrification. He says one of the keys to longevity is building solid relationships with customers and the community he’s cultivated around his business has been his saving grace. “When I decided to open the store, I kept the idea of who I wanted to sell to in mind,” he said. “My general idea was to make hats for people of color. That mission motivates me every day and I don’t waver from that. The community welcomed me with open arms.”
All in all—aside from helping customers with their fashion needs—Mr. Bunn hopes to use his journey from the street table to the boutique to inspire youth and aspiring entrepreneurs in fashion and beyond. “Entrepreneurship and ownership are important. Representation matters,” Mr. Bunn stated. “My store is surrounded by a bunch of schools. Kids come by after school to learn more about what I’m doing. My mission is to inspire the youth.”