Ministry of Hats

In her shop Ianodell’s, singer/entrepreneur Sandra Suber sells superbly ornate hats to women who still dress up for church and other special occasions. Photo by Tim Robison

“Everyone can wear a hat,” pronounces Sandra Suber, owner of Ianodell’s Hat Shop in Mills River. “You just have to adjust it to fit you.”

Suber has been peddling fine chapeaus — and helping her customers adjust those brims — since 1995, when she opened a shop off the side of her house to cater to ladies looking for their church hats. Back then, Suber used to drive more than three hours to Burlington, NC, twice a year to buy hats for the coming season (often as many as 10 at a time). She loved those shops, and kept thinking it was something she might do one day. But a push from her husband — Reverend Odell Suber — got her to take the leap. “I talked about it and talked about it, and one day my husband, who is such a kind and gentle person, says, ‘Listen. If you’re not going to do it, I don’t want to hear about it anymore.’ That was so out of the norm for him — but that’s what it took for me to really step out there.”

The day Ianodell’s opened its doors, Suber nearly sold out. It turned out the ladies of Western North Carolina had been hungry for a shop like this. Word of mouth has driven business ever since.
The tradition of eye-catching church hats has flourished for generations in African-American communities like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, but the custom truly comes into its own in the South. North Carolina photographer-journalist team Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry documented a series of hat-wearing women from across the state in their acclaimed 2000 coffee table book Crowns, which was subsequently adapted into a gospel-driven musical play.

Hats are sourced from established millinery companies and from independent designers, including Travis Darby of Charlotte. Photo by Tim Robison

The power of both music and hats in honoring God is keenly understood by Suber, who was Minister of Music at Greater New Zion Baptist Church in Fletcher (her home church) for 11 years, and held the same position for 29 years at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, also in Fletcher, where her husband was pastor (in church parlance, that made her the “first lady,” a position requiring extra care in her hat selection).

Though both are retired now, Suber still sings spirituals and acts as master of ceremonies at fundraisers and social functions around Henderson County, where she has lived her entire life. Until 2008 she also juggled a job at General Electric, as well as raising two sons (Ian and Odell Jr.; the shop’s name is an amalgam). “I had no time!” she recalls. “But I love it. It’s like a ministry.”

These days Ianodell’s is open by appointment only. Suber welcomes repeat customers and consults with first-time buyers, offering options from the opulent stock lining the walls. “People come in sometimes who don’t wear hats. I don’t get them anything too bold or big. That would turn them off hats for the rest of their life! Some hats you just have to be brave to wear,” Suber acknowledges, pointing to a sculptural, undulating topper. For herself, she gravitates toward bigger hats, particularly with the perfect matching outfit (Ianodell’s also carries ladies’ suits, purses, and African attire).

Bling-y embellishments are a big trend this spring. Easter is naturally an important season for hats, but Ianodell’s biggest holiday is Mother’s Day.
Photo by Tim Robison

Often confidence in a hat is just a matter of finding the right angle — and Suber is adept at fitting. “Hats are a thing you have to play with,” she says. “You can wear them cocked to the side. You can turn the bow maybe to the front. Whatever you feel like that day.” She remains adamant, though, that a hat should never be worn on the back of your head.

Fashions come and go, and Suber keeps a close eye on what her clientele is after. Fascinators are big right now, she says, as is anything with bling. Her wares come primarily from tried-and-true companies like Whittall and Shon, but recently she’s ordered a few fascinators from independent Charlotte-based designer Travis Darby after meeting him at a convention. “I was blown away by his hats,” Suber says. “I wanted to pick up my hats and go home.”

Spring is hectic, with Easter, Mother’s Day, and the Kentucky Derby all in a row. Tryon’s Block House Steeplechase also drives in new customers every year. Whites, pinks, and mint greens pop on the shelves, though Suber predicts that the gold, silver, and sequined items will move quickly for Mother’s Day, her busiest holiday.

May 20 is also Suber’s 23rd Annual Chapeau Fashion Show and Luncheon at Hendersonville’s Chariot, with entertainment, door prizes, and, of course, the chance to discover the perfect hat (though, warns Suber, most of the models end up buying what they wear—and Ianodell’s only stocks one of each, lest two ladies ever appear in identical headpieces).

Though the church-hat tradition hasn’t caught on with the younger generation, Suber still sees a niche for her business. “So many churches are going casual — but there are always some ladies who like hats, and they don’t stop. If you like hats, I don’t worry about you coming back — because I know you’re coming back. You can’t find anything like this around here. You’d have to go to Atlanta.”

Ianodell’s Hat Store is located at 29 Spring Rock Road in Mills River and open by appointment only — 828-776-4676. Sandra Suber’s 23rd Annual Chapeau Fashion Show and Luncheon happens at the Chariot in Hendersonville (715 North Church St.) on Saturday, May 20. Noon. $23 ($20/advance).

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