The Mad Hatter of Derby Day

The Hat Shop

The Hat Shop

On a recent warm, sunny morning, Linda Pagan was in full Kentucky Derby mode weeks ahead of the race, shuffling hurriedly about The Hat Shop, the charming Soho boutique she has owned and operated for nearly 20 years.

Every April for the past decade or so, Ms. Pagan has seen hat sales skyrocket in the lead-up to the Derby, and this month has been no exception. Women—and it is almost always women—race to her store to pick out the perfect fascinator or wide-brimmed hat, which run from $200 to $500. Ms. Pagan told the Transom that last year Cyndi Lauper found her Derby headgear at The Hat Shop, joining a long list of notable clients like Madonna, Bette Midler and Yoko Ono.

“It gets bigger and bigger every year,” she continued over a cup of tea, taking a short break from her busy schedule.

Whether you’re watching from New York—where city-dwellers can find any number of viewing parties—or from Churchill Downs, a nice hat is the sine qua non of Derby culture, according to Ms. Pagan. She noted that some customers fly in all the way from Louisville, where the race takes place, to find the perfect fit.

On the one hand, that seems an awfully long way to travel for a hat, especially when you consider that the sporting event lasts only two minutes. But on the other hand: “I don’t believe you can buy a hat over the Internet,” said Ms. Pagan.

Evidently her customers don’t, either. And soon enough, they came filing in.

The first Derby customer of the day, Marianne Ferriola, goes to the race every other year. She arrived in search of something to match a lime green Nanette Lepore sheath dress with black trim that she bought just for the race, which takes place this year on May 4.

“It’s so exciting!” Ms. Ferriola told the Transom, seemingly overwhelmed by all the choices on display in the shop, which carries the work of up to 35 New York milliners.

Yet Ms. Ferriola wasn’t letting her enthusiasm get the best of her. Hat shopping for the Kentucky Derby is serious business.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Ms. Ferriola said of her first experience at the Derby. “Those southern belles are really something. You have to keep up with them.”

The shop’s walls are lined with all sorts of whimsical creations, decorated with lace, feathers, flowers, ribbons, buckles and buttons.

Ms. Ferriola scanned the offerings, plucked a straw sun hat off the rack—a classic choice—and put it on. She turned to face Ms. Pagan for the verdict.

It fit perfectly.