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The Ampal Creative – A Brand Head and Shoulders Above The Rest

From the time I started researching my piece on vintage style baseball caps, I’ve kind of been hat obsessed. It seems I’m not alone in my fascination—depending on which report you believe, the global baseball hat industry takes in $15-20 billion annually. That’s a lot of hats, and you’ll find a couple dozen of them in my closet.

In talking to a new friend at Iron & Resin for an upcoming profile (stay tuned), I inquired about one of the hats they were selling that wasn’t of their design, and was introduced to Andrew Potash, the founder, co-owner, and creative director of The Ampal Creative. Based in Los Angeles (though Andrew is a neighbor here in La Jolla, CA), The Ampal Creative (TAC) makes hats that look, fit, and feel like no other. From TAC’s site:

Driven by a headwear market that seemed limited and stale at the time, The Ampal Creative launched its first full collection in 2007. Over the last 12 years we have developed a diverse following and become known for quality and attention to detail. Since 2010, all Ampal hats, socks, beanies patches – everything – has been exclusively Made in USA. We search local jobbers and manufacturers for premium textiles and unique prints. Often we find a single roll of deadstock material and make as many hats as we can from it.

Being 100% hands-on in all stages of development for each hat allows us to ensure the highest level of quality. “Made Like They Used To” is more than just a saying for us. It’s how we try to make every product that we release. “Back in the day” clothing and most products were built to last, not disposable purchases that don’t make it a year. We have a personal collection of Ampal hats that have seen years of adventures and abuse – they all have a great worn character, like a great old pair of jeans, but still have a few more years of sun protection in them. Distinguished Goods for Lovers of the Outdoors & Roads Less Traveled…Made Like They Used To in Los Angeles, CA. USA

Employing a singular creative vision, Andrew has carved out a niche for himself in an industry that’s wildly competitive. We arranged to meet at a favorite neighborhood haunt, and Andrew arrived on a vintage Indian motorcycle…that he built himself (talk about making an entrance). Over a couple pizzas (and more than a couple beers) he shared his brand’s origin story, one with a familiar theme—necessity being the mother of invention.

Heddels:  Before we get into the specifics, broadly speaking…why hats?

Andrew Potash:  I have a big head and always had a hard time finding hats that fit.  I grew up in the sad times of the Flexfit era, when a L/XL was barely a” “L and left a crease across your forehead because it was so tight! Also, a recurring theme of mine has been to NOT do what everyone else was doing. So I didn’t want to start with graphics on standard tees and hoodies etc.

The hat market (mid 2000s) was pretty limited at that time…some Flexfit, some trucker hats, a few non-MLB fitted hats and I had ideas! I wanted to make something completely from scratch, with materials I hand-picked and details I hadn’t seen. I quickly realized having to create a good shape and fit along with the design was a lot more difficult than initially anticipated.

H:  Not only do you have perhaps the most eclectic offering of fabrics and design details of any hat company I can think of, but you even have some hat shapes that were totally new to me. Tell me about your creative process.

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There’s plenty of 70s inspiration in this TAC corded cotton number

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More than a little 70s inspiration in the wearer as well.

AP:  Well going back to my stubborn nature of wanting to do something different, I set about designing a new variation on the classic snap back baseball cap. I had found an old NHL hat in a vintage store in NY that had the 2-panel front, so I adapted that to a deeper fitting middle/back of the upper and created the “Ampal” fit that we did exclusively for the first 6 or so years.

It had a strong front profile, kinda what you would associate with a 70’s vintage corduroy snapback or an NWA style Compton swap meet black snapback. It also happened to fit big heads a little better than a normal cut. But then we had to start making 5-panel camp and low profile 6-panel baseball caps for smaller heads. We settled on an unstructured traditional 5-panel snapback fit–it works for about 98% of the people out there. And I accepted that the classic shape was kinda’ unbeatable.

H:  Does each design have its own goal and customer in mind?

AP:  Not at all. For a few years at the request of some international partners that (we’re not working with anymore), I tried to design to trends a bit. I made sure the hats still were to an Ampal level of quality, premium materials etc. but they were designed not from my inspiration but to someone else’s goal.

It was then I made a conscious decision to really focus on making Ampal a reflection of my personal interests, experiences, and travels. I only make things I would wear, and I am the biggest hater ever. Gregg Shaw, my business partner and friend, pushed me to trust myself more in that regard.

H:  I know your passions lie in the California holy trinity of surf, skate and motorcycles—how do those interests inspire what TAC creates?

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AP:  I just call it the “California Burrito” of inspiration. Surf was the first really big obsession in my life. Both my parents surfed and tried to get me started at a super early age. It didn’t really click until I was in sixth grade, but it hit hard. I’ve always dived deep into things, so I was the only grom in the crew during a hardcore performance shortboard era who was reading old Surfer Magazines trying to soak up as much of the history and backstory of it all.

Coming from La Jolla, we have a really rich surf history, and it was clear respecting the many elders was essential. I skated through high school but was never that good and being tall from a young age, I ate a lot of shit and pretty much gave it up after high school. At school the surfers and skaters were one lunch clique so it definitely had an influence though.

My folks would NOT let my brother or I get a motorcycle while we were still living at home. In fifth or sixth grade, a family friend, brought me to an ASR (Action Sports Retailer also RIP) show. These were only in San Diego at the time and this was during the surf boom of the 90s, when brands were just starting to spend bucks for big trade show build-outs.

I returned home with bags of stickers, t shirts, autographs and had seen so many pros, girls in bikinis, etc.–my mind was blown. When I moved to Downtown LA to do Ampal full on (and free from mom and dad’s concerns for safety), my brother got a bike then I got one. Bratstyle was the biggest influence and I immediately dove into customizing it.  So it’s really special to me that I’ve gotten to work with Go and Masumi on hats for two years in a row.

H:  Many companies know they need to sell a piece for a certain price, and then work backwards to figure out what it can look like and be made of. You seem to go…the other way, choosing embellishments (stitched felt letters, handmade patches) and quirky details (an inner pocket) over pure commerce. Is it challenging balancing creative impulses with the bottom line?

AP:  If I did this for commerce I woulda got out a long time ago. We have some momentum going and I hope to someday have some future security from Ampal, but at this point I do it for the freedom of working on my own schedule.

We do all our hats at $40 retail US. It doesn’t make sense from a “business” perspective, but from my perspective I put a lot of love into all the hats and don’t cut any corners, and it would be a lot less clean for us and our retailers if hats were $35.95, $38.95, $41.95 etc.  If I had to compromise a design to meet a price point, I’d rather compromise our margin.

I’d rather have someone SUPER stoked on one of our hats and hopefully buy another one or tell their friend than have them notice a cheaper material or something and lower their regard for Ampal.

H:  TAC has dabbled in socks a bit, choosing purely woven designs over any kind of printing. Are you just a glutton for punishment?

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TAC’s Poppy Socks

AP:  I’d say we do more than dabble! We’ve been doing them for about four years and have about a dozen designs for sale at any one time. Again, I don’t like to do what others are doing and don’t like compromises for the sake of easy or commerce. At the end of the day a “photo print” sock sucks.

It has to be poly or another artificial fiber to take the print, and they just don’t feel good on your feet for any amount of time. Weaving the design allows us to use the bamboo cotton blend I love. It feels better on your feet than almost anything.

H:  You’ve done some cool collabs—what factors in to the decision of working with another brand?

AP:  We’ve been really lucky to work with the brands and people we have…Badweather, Expensive Trash, and Brothers Marshall to name but a few.  It’s mostly occurred naturally.

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Ampal for Bratstyle

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Ampal for Bratstyle

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Ampal for Dice Magazine

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Ampal for Dice Magazine

I met Go and Masumi (of Bratstyle) over a shared love of old Indian motorcycles, and it was a couple years before we decided to do hats. We did the hats for Danner’s flagship stores after our normal line did well for a few seasons. Ampal for Luftgekult x Marine Machine was through a good friend.

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Ampal for Marine Machine

We knew each other from surfing for 15 years, then designed an Ampal for Marine Machine jacket and have continued working on stuff since. Everyone we’ve worked with shares an immense pride in their respective craft. It’s always inspiring to get to meet and work with people like that.

H:  Is there a hat you’ve dreamed up but haven’t made yet, and if yes, why not?

AP:  Yes, but don’t want to say anything until it happens. It requires working with non-local artists outside my normal loop so hopefully it will happen someday.

H:  Are hats the first step toward a TAC clothing empire, or will you maintain this focus?

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One of Ampal’s Tributes to Vintage Travel Pennants

AP:  Do clothing empires exist anymore? (Sorry, jaded.) I really enjoyed designing the jacket with Marine Machine and we did some Ampal T’s and a few other pieces for a few seasons. I feel like stores and the market in the US are so saturated, so it seemed like our efforts and money would be better spent on adding another hat or pair of socks in the line.

Also, with a traditional retail model, it seems like once you have a “clothing line” then you start having to design stuff to “fill SKUs” etc. and it dilutes it. However, as we grow as a brand, I’m looking forward to be able to do small runs and special clothing pieces as it makes sense direct to consumer. A lot of our patches and materials would look really good on a jacket or printed on a T.

H:  You dove into this business head first (no pun intended…ok, maybe a little)–what do you wish someone had told you before launching your own brand?

AP:  Don’t do it? I wish I had connected with a mentor figure but it seems like that’s pretty rare these days. There’s lots of times we could have taken advantage of momentum or opportunities but didn’t know how. It was just me for a long time and I’ve learned what I have through first-hand experience, often failing. By the same token, we’ve worked with some of the best (to me) stores, brands, and companies in the world.

H:  What advice would you offer others?

AP:  Sell out! For a while I handled all our sales, and I actually turned down accounts, bigger ones too, because I didn’t want to “sell out” or be in a less-than-really-cool store. Dumbest. Thing. Ever. Sell as much as you can and use the money to design what you want and put out the best product you can.

I can confirm that, “the best product they can,” is pretty good. I continue to be impressed with how far Andrew and his team push themselves creatively—you’ll never mistake their designs for another brand. And at $40 a pop, they’re the best deal in streetwear caps by a wide margin.

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TAC Label on Gold Waxed Cotton

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Traditional Plastic Snapback

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6-Panel in Blue Wool with Rugby Stripes

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TAC’s 5-Panel Celebration of the Red, White, and Blue (and Green)

 

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Nylon and Plastic Buckle style strap

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TAC Never Shies From Pricey Details Like Stitched Felt Lettering

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Salt and pepper herringbone ode to California and its cultures, inspiring Ampal since day one.

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Leather and Brass style strap

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Perhaps like you, I get stuck in a clothing rut. Sure, there’s variation on the theme, but more often than not it’s denim below, cotton tees above. But hats is where I get to mix it up and add something new…something unexpected.

Twenty years ago in NYC it was bow ties and cufflinks that let me express my inner dandy, and the SoCal version of that is ball caps. And in the same way that I don’t want to wear just any jeans or tees, I won’t wear any old hat. And thanks to a passionate and endlessly inventive guy like Andrew Potash and his Ampal Creative, I don’t have to. And neither do you.