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Tahoe’s Mad Hatter is Back
Look around your mudroom or closet or living room. How many hats do you have? If you are like most people, you have a lot. Trucker hats, baseball hats, flat billed hats, you name it — you most likely have one or two or three. And you probably have room for more.
That’s what Tahoe’s newest hat company, We the Trees, is banking on. Started in 2015 by bigtruck founder Kelsen Thompson, We the Trees takes a mindful approach to headwear. Thompson’s goal with his latest endeavor is to help people connect to nature and express themselves, and for him to get back into the business he loves.
Thompson, 35, grew up in Tahoe City and graduated from North Tahoe High School in 2000. He learned to sew from his mother, whom he calls an incredible seamstress, and the first thing he made was a bag for his ice skates. He created his first hat in high school, hand stitching a small truck on the front. One day while he was talking on the phone, Thompson’s father, who owned a garbage company advertised simply as a “guy with a big truck,” doodled the image of the now iconic bigtruck logo, which features a truck with the bed lifted up — exactly as he would park it in their driveway. Thompson trademarked the logo in 2000.
At Santa Barbara City College, he passed out hats at parties and events and started selling them at a few shops. He earned a bachelor’s degree in advanced visual effects from Ex’pression College for Digital Arts taught by many Pixar animators, before moving back to Tahoe in 2007, where he started selling his hats at local ski shops. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the name of the company, bigtruck, was officially born.
Thompson, the creative side of bigtruck, brought on his good friend Galen Gifford, with whom he had grown up, to be in charge of sales. But the partnership dissolved five years later. The details of their separation are confidential since they both signed a non-disparagement agreement. Gifford, who today is the CEO of bigtruck, said he hopes for the best for his friend, adding, “I wish Kelsen well in his new endeavor.”
For his part, Thompson said he is trying to put the past behind him and look forward with We the Trees.
“From a young age, I had a dream to turn my pop’s drawing of his little truck into a hat company and chased that dream relentlessly,” he wrote in an email to Moonshine. “As the founder and creator of bigtruck, I have moved on.”
Thompson decided to jump back into the hat business soon after leaving bigtruck, and We the Trees officially launched in the summer of 2016 at a sew-on-site event at Fine ’n Funky in Tahoe City. He came up with the name eight years prior while meditating during an eastern studies class in college, and bought the website name at that time. “It connected with me,” he said.
Thompson was inspired to start the new company after he was approached by 120-year-old hat maker Goorin Bros. about working for them. According to Thompson, Goorin Bros. sells thousands of its popular rooster trucker hat (that features the word “cock” above the image of the rooster) every year.
“If people were that interested in barnyard animals and those things, which is not my flavor, they wouldn’t mind wearing Earth or tree patches,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s first patch featured planet Earth. He went on to create patches with kale, trees, sunflowers, lupines, and a dinosaur and unicorn series for kids. Kale, you ask? It’s one of his most popular hats. Of 200 kale patches, Thompson has six left. “People who love kale, love kale,” he said.
Thompson also makes glow-in-the-dark patches of Squaw’s Eagle’s Nest and Tram Face.
“I am more mindful this time,” he explained. “These are hats that help people connect to nature.”
If you think the hat market is saturated, think again. According to statisticbrain.com, the annual hat sales revenue in the U.S. is $2.1 billion, with 43.7 million baseball hats alone sold every year.
“There is so much room for hats,” Thompson said.
Thompson gets his hats from the world’s largest hat factory in Shanghai, China, and designs all the patches himself. His collection includes flat bills, trucker hats, and classic hats, along with backpacks, duffle bags, and fanny packs. He hopes to add beanies and headbands next year.
His creations include hats for Sugar Pine Cakery, Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, Tahoe Cross Country, and the Great Ski Race. You can find his products at Alpenglow Sports, Willard’s Sport Shop, Fine ’n Funky, and Tahoe University, or catch him making hats in front of PlumpJack Sport during the Audi FIS Ski World Cup at Squaw Valley Mar. 9 to 12.
The sew-on-site events are one of Thompson’s favorite parts of the business.
“I love creativity, connecting with people,” he reflected. “Seeing someone smile, it’s an intimate moment making a hat for someone.”
After having been out of the hat business for a year, Thompson is glad to be back at it.
“I am very happy to be doing my thing, doing something that I love,” he said. “Having learned a lot of lessons, I am very excited.”
Learn more about We the Trees and purchase hats at wethetrees.org.
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