Best of Dallas®

Best Of 2007

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Best Of :: Shopping & Services

MARKET: Not-So-Mad Hatters

Neither Stefani McMurrey Watters nor Nicole LeBlanc are, as far as we know, mad. Milliners long ago gave up the nerve-damaging mercury compounds they used at the beginning of the Industrial Age to stiffen felt hats, so unlike Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter, Watters and LeBlanc don't appear to be crazy—except that they make hats. In 2007.

But that's not necessarily madness. Hats are a home-based Internet business for Watters and a former career and art form for LeBlanc. And besides, they just like hats.

"The only place a lady doesn't wear a hat is in her own home, because then you look like you might have someplace to go," says LeBlanc, sitting with a wooden head-shaped block at her feet among boxes of vintage ribbons, feathers and bows in her home near Mockingbird Lane.

You might be going to a rodeo or a country-and-western-themed nightclub, for instance, and feel the urge to express your inner cowgirl princess. In that case, Watters has just the topper for you at SMartHats.com.

"My signature look is the tiara on the hat," Watters says, referring to the crystal bling she applies to colorful straw hats she imports from China along with most of the tiaras. A woman who might feel silly wearing a tiara, which would be just about any woman not named Queen Elizabeth, can mount her crown on a cowboy hat and look just fine. The garage shelves in Watters' home just north of LBJ are lined floor to ceiling with a rainbow of Chinese straw and silvery jewels, ready for Watters to mix and match and add a "rock-star roll" to the brims—two tight tubes on either side of the head.

There are no bubbling steamers to soften felt, no tiresome stretching of material over a wooden block, but like we said, it's 2007, and hat traditions aren't what they used to be. Today, unadorned hats are usually manufactured by cheap Chinese labor or in Europe. The milliner does the designs and adds the decorative touches. If you think about it, Watters' business, which she started in 2002, is the epitome of the new American economy—foreigners provide the manufacturing, we do the designs and selling, and the Internet and rapid shipping link the maker to her customers.

And if you can get a magazine to publish a photo of a celebrity like Jessica Simpson wearing one of your hats, the next thing you know, you have boxes of hats stacked in your yard awaiting shipping. That happened to Watters, who quickly found out that the combination of celebrities who like free stuff plus publicity can add a kick to your start-up, one-woman business.

But that was early on, when Watters was making hats full-time, hauling them in her car trunk to clubs, where customers would buy them off her head, and phoning up fashion editors to pitch her brand. Now a new mother, she runs the business part-time, mostly online, though her hats are also on sale in boutiques here and nationwide, as are some knockoffs made by people who cut corners with cheaper Chinese hats and plastic bling, she complains.

Even the sort of high-end traditional hats that were once LeBlanc's career at Fleur de Paris, a custom millinery and couture shop in New Orleans' French Quarter, rely on foreign labor. "Most everything I use comes from somewhere else," says LeBlanc, who made hats at the shop for 24 years, the last 15 spent commuting to her job via plane from Dallas.

She quit Fleur de Paris in May, but she still makes hats, either blocking them herself—a steamy, labor-intensive task she hates—or ordering them blocked and then completing them with ribbons, flowers, feathers, etc. Think of it like a painter buying a pre-stretched canvas rather than framing and stretching it herself. Do you care if Picasso tacked his own cloth?

Many of the hand-crafted cloth flowers, stitched ribbons and intricately shaped feathers LeBlanc uses are antiques she has recovered at sales. "Like every labor-intensive craft, it's just not done here anymore," LeBlanc says of her collection of cut feathers, but she might as well be talking about the entire craft. The demand for a stylish cloche hat isn't big enough to support more than the handful of remaining craftspeople who make the basic hat shapes she finishes.

Which is a shame, really, because LeBlanc can think of lots of good reasons to wear hats. "Nobody knows when I'm having a bad hair day," she says. "And people will hold the door open for you."

And if you're a lady wearing a hat—or at least a really stylish hat—"a smile will get you things" you might not otherwise get, like politeness.

And there's nothing crazy in wanting that. — Patrick Williams

Best Animal House
Toothacres Pet Care Center

Dogs are like toddlers except when you go on vacation. It's not nice to leave the baby at the kennel, but if you know the right place, it's OK to leave the pooch there. And when you have multiple dogs with varying needs—a senior golden retriever that must pee every two hours, a spaniel that won't poop while on a leash and a mutt who's a four-legged shredding machine—finding a versatile kennel is a must. Toothacres, in business since 1967, has almost 400 runs in different sizes and styles, and most include both indoor and outdoor access (important for the weak-bladdered pups). There are even available "fun run" areas that include splash pools and outdoor toys. The staff is also obliging regarding feeding (they offer Science Diet and Bil-Jac foods, or you can bring your own), plus medication and treats. Prices are comparable to other area kennels, though they also offer more pricey furnished "suites" for the truly spoiled.

1639 Parker Rd., Carrollton, 75010
MAP
972-492-3711
Best Appliance Repair Advice

Washer eating socks? Dryer spewing tepid air? Ice machine stop making cubes? If a home appliance—anything from a toaster to central air-conditioning units—goes kerflooey, the folks at Adam the Answer Man are ready to help. They'll walk you through diagnosing the problem so you don't waste money on the wrong part. They'll tell you what parts you'll need and usually have them in stock. They also have consumer-friendly hours. Most appliance parts stores keep banker's hours and sell to the trade, but Adam the Answer Man is open after 5 p.m. and on Saturday. They'll even tell you what tools you need. Now if only marriage counseling were this easy.

11620 Plano Rd., Dallas, 75243
MAP
214-553-5450
Best Arms and Legs

There are other prosthetics stores in Dallas, but none have been around as long as Hedgecock, and there's a reason for that. From its beginning in 1910, the locally owned company has made its focus patients, not profits. They know what it's like to have to shop for a new foot or leg or arm. Several members of the staff have prosthetics themselves, so they understand the physical and psychological difficulties that go with losing a limb, and they will take the time to get things just right. Way to step up.

2909-C Canton St., Dallas, 75226
MAP
214-744-3278
Best Asian Market
Asia World Market

Dried squid, roasted green peas, spicy eel...right in the middle of the mind-numbing conformity of a northern Dallas suburb stands this delightful ethnic market where most everything is unexpected and exotic. The store, the size of your average Tom Thumb, is divided into sections: Korean, Chinese, Japanese. There's a butcher shop stocked with chicken feet, gizzards and pork tongues; an ice cream aisle where you can sample the mochi rolls (ice cream wrapped in rice); and a drink aisle that includes a soda with real grapes in it. Give your taste buds a trip to the Far East once in a while.

240 Legacy Dr., Plano, 75023
MAP
972-517-8858
Best Ballin' Gear

Sure, this chain store's in a mall located way up on LBJ, which means we have to pack a lunch and hire a sherpa for the long journey to sample its wares. But Steve & Barry's has Starburys, dawg (they are, in fact, the exclusive seller of the Starbury brand). If you don't know what that means, hip yourself to the revolution: In September of last year, New York Knick Stephon Marbury, who'd grown tired of watching poor inner-city kids spend way too much on expensive sneakers, decided to start his own clothing company and sell sneakers for the righteous price of $14.98. He even wears them in NBA games. And though they're not the prettiest shoes in the world—the word "fugly" comes to mind—they certainly serve their purpose, and more important, they serve it for a price we can all get behind. For example, the last time we went to Steve & Barry's, we walked out with a pair of basketball shorts, a stylish T-shirt and a fresh pair of Starbury II's (in Phoenix Suns colors, unfortunately), all for less than $40 (!). Just remember—your hang time could suffer from all the change left in your pocket.

13331 Preston Rd., Dallas, 75240
MAP
972-392-3701
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