JW Bennett partners Sarah Kjorstad (left) and Lara Azria-Reucassel (right) are perfect counterbalances for one another, yet bond over core values and growing the business. Photo: Shannon Corsi.
PARK CITY, Utah — Partners behind JW Bennett, Sarah Kjorstad and Lara Azria-Reucassel, craft unique hand-made hats that capture mountain style. Park City and Jackson, Wyo. are textbook platforms for its contemporary western hats.
The American West has long been romanticized in Americana, from spaghetti westerns (low-budget films produced in Italy in the 60s and 70s) to the Yellowstone dramatic series (filmed partially at the Utah Film Studios), the West captivates across demographics. What’s rare beyond pop culture depictions of the West is someone that truly lives it. JW Bennett’s hatter and founder Sarah Kjorstad comes from a long lineage of Wyomingites that inspired the durable yet fashionable headwear she designs.
“There’s a history that we wanted to invoke when we rebranded to honor Sarah’s heritage and the heritage of Wyoming in general,” said Azria-Reucassel. “We use that spirit and passion of roots and heritage, and Sarah’s the perfect person to take this traditional technique, grow it and do something modern and contemporary with it.”
While Sarah makes the hats, Lara still gets creative by hand-stitching the mountain logo, adding bands and accessories, and fire-distressing hats.
The name of the business is a nod to Kjorstad’s heritage. JW are her parents’ initials and Bennett for her grandmother’s maiden name. Her fashionable, hardworking, determined grandmother was and still significantly influences her life and artistry. On the maternal side of the family tree were the ranchers and homesteaders. On her father’s side were the first orthodontist in Wyoming (grandfather) and one of the first physicians (great-grandfather) in the state.
While the name acknowledges Kjorstad’s familial heritage, her craft honors the long-standing and barely changed tradition of hatting.
“Hat-making started back in the 1800s,” Kjorstad said. “And it’s interesting the way that fur trading and trappers were born out of English gentlemen’s desire for top hats. The mountain men would trap beaver, take their pelts, trade, and sell them to be shipped back to England to make gentlemen’s top hats. That’s how the fur traders and mountain men were born. The way that you make hats hasn’t changed… it’s the same technique, the same material and the same fur, the same equipment that started the hat-making trade.”
Art and creativity weren’t especially encouraged in her family; there were more important and practical things to focus on. But Kjorstad found those qualities in life on the ranch, whether sewing clothes, baking, interior designing, or putting outfits together. She didn’t find hatting until later in her life, after kids and a career as a physical therapist.
Kjorstad bought lying to waste hatting equipment from a hatter who owned a shop in Idaho Falls for over 20 years. She scatteringly spent a week in Tennessee learning the basics of hatting, went home and honed her newfound skills, and opened a boutique location in Jackson. “You have just got to trust. Jump in with both feet and start making and doing, creating your own technique and method,” Kjrostad said.
In 2020, Azria-Reucassel met Kjorstad after her father bought hats; they talked about opening a shop in Park City, where she recently moved, after a road trip throughout the West. Azria-Reucassel and Kjorstad met for coffee to talk more about expanding, and their partnership took form.
Each accessory in this photo was hand-made by Kjorstad except the vintage bandanas.
“[Lara] was just the answer to all my prayers,” said Kjorstad. “She has this fabulous background in fashion; she is everything that I could have ever put down on paper that I wanted. We call ourselves the yin and the yang. She’s from the city; I grew up on a ranch in Wyoming. But we both have this love for fashion and for growing this business, and we’re both moms. We share a lot of our core values…and want something that we’re proud of and grow together.”
Fashion runs in Azria-Reucassel’s DNA. She was born in Paris to a French fashion entrepreneur father and Slovenian fashion model mother. Her father, Serge Azria, founded Joie and Current/Elliott clothing brands, and her uncle, Max Azria, started BCBG in the 80s. She worked in corporate fashion for a long time but was drawn to the small, handcrafted business.
The duo opened a second shop in Park City later in 2020. Kjorstad handles the sourcing and creative processes of the business from Jackson, while Azria-Reucassel handles operations, logistics, and the Park City location.
Clients can purchase a JW Bennett hat from a pre-designed template or completely custom start to finish. Hats are made from beaver pelt for its durability and water-resistant qualities, but for a lighter yet equally resilient hat, a combination pelt is used from rabbit and beaver. Each hat is handcrafted in Jackson from Kjorstad’s 19th-century Parisian hatting equipment.
The Salmo Trutta is one of many pre-designed hats, that can also be altered to any clients’ taste.
Kjorstad makes the hats and accessories, hand-beading intricate hatbands and gluing feathers that were plundered from her husband’s hunting expedition.
“I’ve just been blown away and so in awe still all the time of how receptive and how welcoming people have been [in Park City],” Kjrostad said. “It’s been incredible how well received they’ve been, but we make everything literally in Jackson Hole. Everything from the hats to the bands and accessories are made by hand. It’s unique in any industry right now that you know who actually made your item. It’s quality, it’s craftsmanship, it’s heritage because you don’t get a lot of soul in stuff that you buy any more.”
JW Bennett pairs up with local artists to expand its accessory offerings and support local artists and small businesses. Coral + Tusk crafts embroidered whimsical hatbands of feathers and woodland creatures. Jackson Hole Jewelry Co. makes rose gold, white gold, and yellow gold mountain pins. Heather Benjamin creates wildlife hat pins like buffalo, snakes, hawks, and moons. Finally, artist Lauren Liberg designs complete hats that are one-of-a-kind.
“The ability to create and design your hat, whether we brand initials, or add extra feathers, or have a thin or a thick band with many colors, every hat walks out of the door a little different than the previous one,” Azria-Reucassel said. “It’s unique to the wearer, and it makes me just so happy to see these men and women satisfied and how much they love the experience and how great they feel wearing our hats.”
You’ll find the Park City location just down the alley from Banksy’s ‘Camera Man with Flower.’ JW Bennett recommends booking an appointment for your hat experience, you can do that by calling or texting 435-640-6155. Azria-Reucassel and Kjorstad host corporate and private events for more intimate experiences.