Published on Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hats off to Chicago

TravelMole's Graham McKenzie continues his journey to meet the people behind a new Ilinois tourism campaign, and this time they're making hats, bikes and coffee.

Chicago is the third largest city in the US, with almost 3 million residents and in the wider metropolitan area this rises to over 10 million. It acts as a hub for finance, commerce, transport, technology and telecommunications with vast areas dedicated to the retail giants of the continent such as Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Saks 5th Avenue and Barneys. The city's famous architecture towers above you at each step and being next to the vast Lake Michigan just adds to the aura. Chicago's airport O'Hare is the second busiest in the world, it has more highways than any other region and the rail system is one of the most complex and comprehensive. Each year it hosts over 50 million international and domestic visitors, plus it is home to some of the most famous sports teams in the world. All in all it's a busy, sometimes frantic but very interesting destination.

On first sight, one would think that amongst this urban maelstrom there would be little place for the small one-man business, or an artisan whose enthusiasm for his or her craft has developed into a successful enterprise. But there are some gems within the city limits, unearthed by the 'Illinois Made' campaign from the state's tourism body, Enjoy Illinois.

First up for me was a place where the phrase 'style is permanent, fashion is temporary' could not have been more appropriate. Based in the very heart of Chicago's financial district, and at the start of the famous Loop, Optimo Hats are the purveyors of some extraordinary products. We are talking serious hats here. Made to measure, made from the highest quality materials, made with the finest skills and more than anything made with passion. Such is the quality of their service is that if they feel you are not suited to a hat, they will positively discourage you from purchasing one, and they are not cheap. For Optimo, wearing a hat is a statement that reflects your personality, skin tone, eye colour and sense of style.

Using the hat wearing capital of America as a base, the company supplies some of the most famous people on earth, and do it with classic designs such as Homburgs, Stetsons and Fedoras. In an unsurprising turn of events, I did not fill the bill of an Optimo client. Apparently I'm not serious enough about hats. "We want a great hat for each individual customer. If we can't achieve that we would rather not sell you one," said the owner Graham Thompson, a Chicago boy. They meant it, as I walked away empty headed.

So it was a polite 'on your bike', which as it happens was very appropriate as my next port of call was to the Heritage General Store where they cater for two 21st century obsessions - coffee and bicycles. The bikes are handmade in Chicago, the coffee from freshly roasted beans and, as is the case with all the Illinois Made partners, it is driven by a passion for the product, quality and service. As you walk into the establishment, an air of calm is evident and for some you may be transported back to your favourite uncle's garden shed with all sorts of tools and spare parts around the walls. A hypnotic mash up of oil, coffee and wood give a fragrance that is comforting and familiar. A Heritage Bicycle looks familiar as well: a lot of it is based around traditional lines with even a sturmey archer 3 speed gear set up, which brits of a certain age will be well acquainted with.

Coffee is a relatively simple purchase although the choice is varied. Bikes on the other hand are bespoked to your specific needs and preferences and come in a choice of size, colour, gear set up, brakes, handlebars and fitted as standard, I am pleased, to note, a bell. These are not 'fashion' bikes and they are not designed for endless trips through three feet of mud up impossible inclines or to sprint down the final mile of the Tour de France. These are city cycles designed to get you from a to b in comfort, calm, safety, ease and, of course, style. Illinois made - Illinois looking good.

Graham visited Optimo Hats  and Heritage Bicycles as part of the Illinois made programme.

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