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How a hat trick rescued this local sportsgear entrepreneur

A few years ago, Luke Fraser was living in Glen Ellen and creating custom, funkified fashion for Bay Area sports fans, especially those with lifetime loyalty to Dub Nation.

But due to the sliding fortunes of the Warriors team, he has gradually pivoted his business to making “pocket hats,” a series of unisex trucker hats with eye-catching embroidered patches shouting out the names of Northern California towns like Guerneville and Cotati, Ukiah and Sonoma.

“I was doing silkscreen t-shirts, and then the Warriors lost,” he said. “I knew it was not a good business model to rely on a team to be champions every year.”

For his now-defunct Bart Bridge line of clothing — t-shirts and jackets made from retro fabric grafted onto thrift-store camouflage — he had made a few “stash hats” with abbreviated place names like “Town” (for Oakland) and “City” for San Francisco.

“It was still sports-related then,” he said. “You can stick a card in there behind the patch, and if you’re on vacation, you can stash a credit card, a couple of bucks or a room key.“

In the back of his mind, Fraser had been thinking about what he would do next. Although it wasn’t a slam dunk, the idea of expanding his line of hats slowly took root.

Then a friend drew a cool sketch of a California poppy. Fraser picked up the poppy and ran with it. He was living in Penngrove at the time, so he decided to create a Sonoma County product that would help his business grow, whether Bay Area teams were winning or not.

“Sonoma County was my first non-sports-related hat,” he said. “I used a black hat, and it looked so beautiful and artistic. Then you make a Marin County Hat and a Sonoma hat, and then you get obsessed.”

Hyper, hyper-local

Now, two years later, Fraser has created a series of more than 100 different patches for caps that are attractive and fun, exuding the positivity one feels after getting back from a relaxing vacation in a beautiful, under-the-radar spot.

“When you go to a place for vacation and it’s obscure, people get excited to see the hat,” he said. “The dopamines are going off as you remember the vacations you took in those places.”

It also helps that his embroidered designs, executed with the help of his artist friend Mike Hampton, are colorful, whimsical and often tongue-in-cheek, like the t-shirts he once made for Warriors fans.

“Cotati has an accordion. Rohnert Park has the freeway sign. Petaluma has a chicken ... naturally,” he said. “Sonoma has an olive branch. Guerneville has a pink fold-out beach chair. ... It’s a little Bohemian.”

Fraser stayed away from any kind wine imagery on purpose. But he did give Santa Rosa a beer bottle and glass as a nod to the world-famous Pliny the Younger craft beer from the Russian River Brewing Co.

His Sebastopol hat boasts a Gravenstein apple. Mendocino County has a pine cone. Ukiah got a weed trimmer (as the gateway to the Emerald Triangle), and Arcata features some fabulous fungi.

“I just finished West Marin, and I can’t wait to show it to a shop,” he said. “It’s got an iris on it.”

Lately, Fraser has been producing patches done in the Bauhaus style, a modernist school that combined crafts with the fine arts. Its simple lines and geometric influence can be seen on his Mt. Tam hat, with its slanting sun and triangular mountain, and his Sea Ranch hat, with its boxy brown houses.

“I like that the hat is unisex and it’s one size, and the machine embroidery really makes it pop,” Fraser said. “They’re art. I can see them displayed on a wall, in cubbies made with barnwood.”

The ever-expanding series of hats, which also features towns from the East Bay and South Bay to Lake Tahoe, includes about 15 that tout the small towns of Sonoma County, and additional Sonoma Valley hats are on the drawing board.

The custom lids are flying off retail shelves from Sonoma to Lake Tahoe.

“The Sock Store in Truckee is selling about seven hats a day,” Fraser said. “I get a kick out of it when the stores put in an order, and they’re totally excited.”

At Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, owner Michael Volpatt originally offered to sell about 15 of Fraser’s hats on a trial basis. Within a few days, they were all gone.

“People love the design because it’s so unique and creative,” Volpatt said. “Even the kids at the market said, ‘I love the Cotati hat.’ Whoever thought there would be a Cotati hat?”

Like the t-shirts he designed for Bart Bridge, the patches for the pocket hats are a collaborative process between himself and Hampton.

“I pick a town, and I have to distill a town down to one image,” Fraser said. “And I tell him what I’m looking for. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s difficult.”

Once the creative team decides on an image, Hampton sketches it out on Adobe Illustrator and Fraser sends it off to a patch maker to be manufactured.

“They’re granular and hyper, hyper-local,” Fraser said. “There’s a lot of pride for each town in the Bay Area, and Sonoma (County) is similar.”

A new adventure after loss

Now 36, the Berkeley native is still as wiry and restless as he was when he was in his teens. The only time he sits still is when he’s driving.

He’s doing a lot more of that now. The former athlete enjoys digging into the history of each town, then driving to various cities in Northern California to market his hats to retail outlets.

He’s also been whipping out his fabric collection and producing custom face masks as well, which he sells at cost to the stores that carry his hats.

“I drove around and developed relationships with all these stores,” he said. “It’s fun, and it’s an adventure.”

He also sells his hats on his website (bartbridge.com) for about the same price ($35) as in boutiques such as the Loop in Sonoma .

When the 2017 Tubbs fire hit, Fraser was living with his brother in a Glen Ellen cabin that was “cooked” by the inferno. Fraser lost all his belongings and $70,000 worth of Bart Bridge inventory, from raw fabric and patches to finished sportswear.

This summer, he took another financial hit when the fairs and festivals he planned to sell at were canceled due to the pandemic.

“When COVID hit, I had signed up for all these events, and you don’t get your money back,” he said. “But once you allow yourself to be bummed, it works itself out. That happened with the fire, and now with the pandemic it feels the same.”

Since his brother’s cabin has been rebuilt, Fraser enjoys spending more time in Glen Ellen while throwing himself into his new business. He also has a home and studio in Vallejo that he bought while rebuilding his sportsgear business after the fire.

His distinctive headgear seem to be custom-made for the post-pandemic lifestyle because people can show off the hats while taking a Zoom call. And more people are identifying with their town, he noted, because they are both working and living there.

“If you’re in Glen Ellen, you’re there all the time,” Fraser said. “I am starting to spend more time there. ... Right now, it’s where I want to be.”

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