- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

When someone puts on a nice suit, shirt, tie and shoes with a high polish, he may think he is dressed to the nines but Andrea Bray believes you might as well be naked without one of her fine hats on your head.

"Hats are not a fad," says Mrs. Bray, a broadcast journalist by trade and host of "The Andrea Bray Show," an old-school rhythm-and-blues hour on WPFW-FM (89.3).

"They are appropriate for every occasion, and it gives you a finished look for men and women," says Mrs. Bray, who has been in the head-ensemble business for 12 years.

After nearly 20 years working in radio broadcast news with media companies such as WRC, WTOP and WDJY, she got fed up with the rigamarole and fast-paced work. "I just said one day [in 1987], 'Maybe I'll just do hats,' so my husband and I looked at buying and selling a few," Mrs. Bray says.

Three years later, with the help of friends and the exposure of presentation parties and other events, she had attracted a large customer base enough to open her own store. Her store, Andrea's Fine Hats, has been at 7825 Eastern Ave. in Silver Spring, just along the District line, for seven years. Before that, she was in the District, just behind City Place Mall.

"I was displaced in the name of progress after five years when the city decided to revitalize downtown near Fenton Street," Mrs. Bray says.

"I've sold probably millions of hats to people from all walks of life," says Mrs. Bray, whose diverse clientele includes entertainers, members of Congress, civic leaders and the everyday working man on the street.

"We like to think we are on the cutting edge of fashion with new colors, silhouettes and designers probably a year ahead of their time," she adds.

She says Kangols in nearly any style are very popular now, but she has a fine selection from top makers, including Stetson, Biltmore, Borsalino and Makin too many to list.

"I use about 12 name brands for men, and for women, maybe 30 or more from around the world," Mrs. Bray says. She has been to several European shops to look for cutting-edge styles, including the Borsalino shop during a visit to Italy.

"I don't go as much as I would like to. Now I usually go to New York and visit [designers] shops here," she says.

Her journalism background helped her in getting her business started. "I found I was able to research who the vendors were and how to get them," she says.

Some of the hats Mrs. Bray sells are custom-made, but she says, "I don't consider myself a milliner; I am a retailer."

Although far removed from the world of journalism, Mrs. Bray says she still feels the hunger to speak out and tackle important issues.

A native of Pittsburgh, Mrs. Bray graduated from Hampton University in Hampton, Va. "It was [Hampton] Institute when I attended," she says, giving a hint of her age without revealing exactly how long she has been walking the earth. The closest she'll come to telling her age is to say, "I'm a war baby, somewhere between Korea and Vietnam."

Her marriage to Anderson Bray has produced two children and five grandchildren "so far." The two grew up together in Pittsburgh and have rarely been apart.

Mrs. Bray always has a lot to say, keeping her customers smiling and in a good mood. One of her best stories involves two female customers fighting over one of her custom jobs.

"It was lady's fur mink hat, very tacky if you ask me, but it was $1,500, and the two women fought over it like two children fighting over a toy," she says.

She finds just as much reward in her daily radio gig as in all the work she puts into her hats, finding just the right hat for every person she serves.

On her show on WPFW, a Pacifica station, she tries to keep the conversation light for her listeners, bringing them a wide range of R&B artists. "They listen for the music, not to hear me yap about this and that, so that is what I try to give them," she says.

Her friend and former co-host, Bobby Bennett, asked her to go to the station and sit in the studio with him 4 ½ years ago. "After a long time putting him off, I went in and never left," Mrs. Bray says.

What distinguishes WPFW from other music stations is that it is a community-based station paid for by its listeners. "We are all volunteers, basically, but we have a good time," Mrs. Bray says.

Mrs. Bray and Mr. Bennett co-hosted the show for two years, but when Mr. Bennett left the station to join the XM Satellite radio schedule, she says, "I inherited the show."

"I was used to doing the news and not sure what to do," she recalls. Eventually, though, everything worked out. She has been on her own for about two years and has made a strong name for herself in the community.

As for the hats, summer is slow.

Fall is when Mrs. Bray gets excited about new looks and styles and works on getting the best hat on as many heads as she can. She will host her third annual hat show at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt Sept. 29. Most of her loyal customers attend and are eager to see the new-look lids.

"Men's hat styles are pretty consistent, but they want more color these days," Mrs. Bray says.

A lady's hat is different. The styles tend to change more frequently, and the hats tend to be more fragile because of the fabrics used.

"I've loved hats all my life, and this is truly what I love doing now," Mrs. Bray says.

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