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ALUMNI ROLL CALL: SOUTH COLT TRENT JOHNSON'S CREATIONS A KEY PART OF POPULAR “YELLOWSTONE” SERIES
Although his name might not be as immediately recognizable as Kevin Costner, Cole Hauser or Kelly Ryley, Trent Johnson is as much a part of the popular “Yellowstone” series as its stars.
Trent, who attended Highland Park and Roncalli before graduating from South High School in 1990, is the owner of Greeley Hat Works, whose origin dates back to 1909.
Using the historic Parisienne hat-making method from the 1850s, Trent has crafted custom hats for everyone from U.S. presidents to bull riders, celebrities to rock stars, blue-collar workers to retirees.
Perhaps most famously, the hats worn by Governor John Dutton and his family, ranch hand Rip Wheeler and the rest of the “Yellowstone” entourage – are the results of Trent’s latest foray into the world of television and movie costuming.
Trent also crafted the hats worn by Will Smith and Matt Damon, and the rest of the cast of the 2000 golfing film “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” and Jeremy Renner in the 2017 film “Wind River.”
As is the case with most passions, Trent’s love of hats began in childhood.
“Back in the day, everyone used to wear a hat,” he said. “I just remember watching my grandfathers always putting on a hat before going out. And I think that’s what piqued my interest and then turned into my thing.”
While most of his friends were collecting sports cards and the like, Trent began amassing a set of headwear.
“On a family holiday to the grand opening of Epcot, I took hats home as souvenirs — a fez hat from Morocco, a beret from France, a ‘bobby hat’ from London,” he said.
With that cache growing more impressive with each visit to The Pueblo Mall, a special place in the collection was reserved for an Indiana Jones-style fedora once owned by his grandfather that still holds a special place in Trent’s heart and office.
“I was always excited when South would announce a spirit day, like ‘Crazy Hat Day,’” Trent said. “But I always saw it as ‘Cool Hat Day.’”
In addition to a love of headwear, Trent boasted a strong entrepreneurial drive: a combination that would serve him well a few years later.
As a child, he would stage magic shows in his backyard and charge friends 50 cents to observe.
“I’ve always had that drive to create,” Trent said.
Growing up on the Southside, Trent launched a lawn-mowing business with a mower leased from his parents. In order to teach his son a real-life lesson about the world of business, Garry Johnson – who spent his teaching career in the District – would take a cut of every lawn mowed.
And while he didn’t know it at the time, Trent was actually investing in his own future every time he forked over a piece of the business pie.
Throughout his time in the District, Trent’s life was positively impacted by a host of teachers whose names he remembers to this day.
At Roncalli, Trent had the honor of studying under his father, who along with Mr. Ingo, Mr. Frakes, Mr. Gaylord, Mr. Pacheco and Mrs. Partin made his middle school years enjoyable and productive.
At Highland Park, Trent’s first-grade teacher, Mrs. Read, and fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Hitchcock, proved to be instrumental in his formative years, while at South, Mrs. White and Mr. Dougherty and Mr. DiPietro are remembered as impactful educators.
When it came time to leave Pueblo for the University of Northern Colorado, Trent sold the business to help fund his education at UNC’s business school.
“As it turned out, I really didn’t have good enough grades for that,” he said.
Instead, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an educator.
Upon completing his student teaching, however, Trent realized his career would not be spent in the classroom.
“I really, really liked the kids,” he said. “But I came to realize I really, really didn’t like the parents.”
While living in Greeley, the one-time “city slicker” began to adopt the Western aesthetic, donning Wranglers, boots and, naturally, a cowboy hat. Embracing his entrepreneurial spirt, Trent found work as a ranch-hand on the expansive Orr Ranch, where he learned the trade of the cowboy: roping and branding, fixing fences, and irrigating crops.
At that time, the Orr Ranch was home to a custom hat shop operated by Susie Orr. Trent became enamored with the operation, spending his spare time learning the intricacies of the craft.
Eventually, he became Mrs. Orr’s apprentice: a stint that lasted three-and-a-half years.
With an eye toward securing a loan in order to eventually purchase Greeley Hat Works, Trent spent his evenings writing a business plan.
At that time, however, hat-making was not seen by banking officials as a very promising investment, and Trent found himself with big dreams but little capital.
With the Orrs pledging most of the funding, Mr. Johnson found another private investor willing to join the team. Still lacking all the needed capital, Trent reluctantly turned to his family.
The answer was “no,” in a sense.
“You don’t need our money,” Garry Johnson told his son. “You already have it.”
Quietly, the patriarch of the Johnson family had invested every dollar he required his son to pay him as part of the lawn-mowing venture into the stock market. With the portfolio sold, Trent was now in business.
And in 1996, the hours of planning, vision and hard work combined to great effect, as Trent embraced his legacy by becoming only the fourth owner of Greeley Hat Works in more than 100 years.
“From my Southside roots, if you will, I often say, ‘Hey man, I didn’t choose the hat life: it chose me,” he said with a laugh.
In that first year with Trent at the helm, Greeley Hat Works produced 60 hats, doubling that output the second year.
Today, Trent and his 25 employees turn out 5,000 hats every year, with the product line revered for its quality, craftsmanship, and groundbreaking designs.
Although the company’s clientele is primarily made up of horse- and cattlemen and women, rodeo professionals and ranching and farming workers, Trent has, rather quietly, expanded his brand into the world of music and filmmaking, most recently with the “Yellowstone” franchise.
Fifteen years ago, Trent made a custom hat for writer and filmmaker Taylor Sheridan, co-creator of “Yellowstone.”
Years later, Mr. Sheridan reconnected with Trent with an offer to work on the neo-Western crime film “Wind River.”
“After I told him I was in, he bought me a plane ticket to the location,” Trent said. “So I hung out with him and Jeremy Renner and the cast for about four days.”
During that time, Trent intensely observed Mr. Renner and the manner in which he put on and took off his hat, laid it on the table, and so forth.
“I wanted to make his hat authentically distressed,” Trent said. “There are companies that make hats ‘dirty’ so that they look like they’ve been worn by cowboys, but our distressing process is about a 17-step process.
“I really spent a lot of time with the actors, but not in character. So while Jeremy was taking his hat on and off, I’d literally take a tailor’s pencil and kind of trace where he’s grabbing the hat.”
It’s that meticulous distressing process that gives the hats an authentically “lived in” look that’s essential to a film’s accuracy.
Once “Wind River” wrapped up, Mr. Sheridan and Trent kept in touch.
And in May 2017, Trent received a package: the Season 1, Episode 1 script for a new project called “Yellowstone.”
“I read through it and told Taylor, ‘I’m in,’” Trent said. “So he sent me a airplane ticket.”
A one-way ticket.
“I only packed four days’ worth of clothes, not realizing at the time the ticket was one way,” Trent explained. “And so, almost two weeks later, he bought me an airplane ticket home.”
During that time on set, Trent laid the groundwork for what evolved into the line of now iconic hats worn by Kevin Costner and the rest of the “Yellowstone” cast.
“We became like family,” Trent said. "We ate together, we rode horses together, we did everything together. I really got to know them as humans and as their characters, to help facilitate their personalities through their hats.”
Although the actors he works with may be A-list celebrities, Trent said the majority are “genuine, authentic and kind. Now, there can be one or two who can have that ‘Hollywood tint’ to them, but those are the ones I’m actually kind of harder on. It makes them come down a notch or two, and forces them to see me as a collaborator and not ‘the help.’”
With three spinoffs, “Yellowstone” continues to provide coveted opportunities for Trent to work with award-winning wardrobe designer Ruth Carter and Mr. Sheridan.
And that coveted association with “Yellowstone” has, to little surprise, been very good for business.
“It’s been crazy,” Trent said of the surge in sales coinciding with the rise of the Duttons. “As for the most popular models, it’s a tie between the original John Dutton and Rip. And Casey is coming in hard and fast right behind them.”
Like the hat trade, Trent didn’t choose Tinsel Town, it chose him.
“It’s like I’m an overnight success 27 years in the making,” he said. “And it isn’t like I started putting ads in the Hollywood magazines. It’s all been super organic and real, literally people coming to me.”
The core of Greeley Hat Works’ clientele remains the real-life cowboys and cowgirls, ranchers and ranch-hands, and city and urban folk who simply want to look good in hand-crafted headwear.
“Your hat is an extension of your personality,” Trent said. “Every hat I help people design is a new collaboration, so I really enjoy getting to know them and their lives. And together we, design the hat.”
Although Trent didn’t follow through on his plans to become an educator, his UNC degree continues to come in handy in his chosen line of work.
“I actually graduated with a degree in sociology with a minor in psychology,” he said. “Now, I say, ‘I analyze cowboys and their hats for a living.’
“So I’m still using my degree.”
To learn more, visit www.greeleyhatworks.com