Hat enthusiast brings California fashion to Chicago

By Areeba Shah
Medill Reports

A year ago, when real-estate agent Aaron Malki was sitting in his Bucktown living room, he realized he wanted to create something.

When he noticed his Polo “dad hat” hanging from the back of his door, he knew exactly how to combine his passions for fashion and philanthropy.

In February, the 28-year-old launched Heart Hats, which reinvests about 7% of profits into Chicago’s youth organizations. His company produces dozens of toppers, from bucket hats to flat-brim designs, all ranging from $25 to $38.

“I felt like I’ve always had an eye for fashion,” he said. “I try to have my pulse on the market and see what’s trending.”

Originally from Redlands, California, about an hour from Los Angeles, Malki envisions bringing some of that aesthetic to Chicago.

Malki poses with hats from his company .

He puts a twist on the latest street styles.

“It just fascinates me, like, I love seeing a girl wearing a pair of new Fila shoes or looking at a kid and seeing what they’re doing,” he said.

One design plays off a traditional baseball cap, but with a visor that tilts upward.

His personal favorite: a one-time release yellow bucket hat with a sky blue “Chicago” embroidered on it, which costs $38.

Itzayana Lazaro wears the one-time release yellow bucket hat.

“The aesthetic for designing the hat is Chicago,” said Itzayana Lazaro, his girlfriend. “I like the fact that he has a love for the city even though he’s from California.”

From snapping photos of mutual friends on his phone to shooting models now, he’s come a long way, Lazaro added. She often models his latest pieces on Instagram and helps with online marketing and outreach events like dodgeball for local teens.

Malki rocks a different headpiece for any weather. A polar vortex? He can wear his acrylic beany.

Often, he finds such inspiration while strolling through some of Chicago’s colorful neighborhoods and exposing himself to edgy trends.

“Fashion really just evolves, it goes into full circle,” Malki said. “I think if you tell a story in your company, particularly in fashion, that can go a long way.”

Before launching the company, Malki lacked experience in the fashion industry, yet loved dissecting different products and understanding the manufacturing of materials. Being a self-described hat guy, he naturally focused on designing toppers.

It takes him around 30 days to launch a new product. Before sending an order to his supplier, Malki tests the sample on his friends and himself to assess its quality.

He avoids putting a cute heart on a bad hat. Each one displays either the word “heart” or a heart symbol embroidered on it.

Even as an 11-year-old, Malki put his designing skills to use. He stenciled some T-shirts and launched a clothing brand with his sister. The early entrepreneurial venture lasted just two days.

Malki poses for a photo with members of Dance Peace, based in Rogers Park, after a rehearsal.

The philanthropic component of the company grew equally important to him. So far, he has donated $648 in profits to one of the three youth-based partner charities: Keshet in Northbrook, Young Chicago Authors in Bucktown and Dance Peace in Rogers Park.

“It feels good to give back,” Malki said. “It feels like you are making a difference.”

Though he still sells real estate full-time, he wanted to give back to young artists, too.

“You know, it’s not a million dollars,” Malki said. “We’re not giving back an obscene amount of money, but I hope we can get there at some point.”

Already, his products are sold in three Chicago stores, including the Silver Room in Hyde Park, Phayse in Logan Square and Raygun in Andersonville. But Malki plans to expand his product line, adding T-shirts, sweatshirts and bags. He is keeping other new ideas under his hat.

Photo at top: Aaron Malki wears a yellow bucket hat from his company, Heart Hats, in Logan Square. (Courtesy of Aaron Malki)