The WIRTH Hats Story
On July 11th, 2014 I received a message from a fellow classmate: “I hate to be the one who announces this news but I think you should know… Jakob Wirth is no longer with us. He died a few days ago, in Turkey.”
Three months prior: my friend and classmate Jakob Wirth shared with me that he wanted to start a hat company. At the time, Jakob and I were in a masters program called Organizational Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Copenhagen Business School. There wasn’t a class that went by where we didn’t hear the word innovation, and any idea that came out of our mouths felt like it needed to be unique, in some way.
When Jakob shared with me that he wanted to start a hat company, it was different. “I love hats, plain and simple. I want to make hats that people are excited to put on every morning,” he told me. I thought about suggesting some sort of x-ray-measuring-brain-wave feature to go along with it – as a way to check the ‘unique’ box – but I bit my tongue. He just wanted to make hats – nice hats that people would be excited to wear. How could anyone argue with that? I also loved a good hat.
Over the coming months, Jakob and I talked about his hat company a lot. I told him that I thought his last name, Wirth, would make a great company name, and that there were so many opportunities to play on those words. He hummed and hawed about it – while he liked the idea, he thought it seemed a little arrogant for his liking.
That summer, I left Copenhagen to go back home to Vancouver, Canada.
That summer, Jakob took his life.
Seeing those words written today still makes my stomach drop. I remember sitting back and staring at the wall, tears streaming from my face, while hundreds of thoughts circled my mind.
For the next few weeks, every time I saw a hat, I thought of Jakob’s hat company. I thought of WIRTH. I felt there would be no better way to honour my friend than for Jakob to have his hat company brought to life.
With the help of a friend, I started down that road. In February 2015, I returned to Copenhagen with 25 WIRTH Hats for Jakob’s family and closest friends. The hats were to honour Jakob’s dream, but more importantly – they were a symbol for the many struggles that lie beyond our view.
The tags on the hats read:
“WIRTH Hats are in memory of Jakob Wirth, who passed away last year. Jakob’s dream was to create a hat company that people would love, so here’s to WIRTH Hats. May these hats serve as a reminder that when going through difficult times, there are always people to reach out to, as we are never alone as we sometimes think we are.”
This is where I thought the WIRTH Hats story would end.
It was meant to be a one time thing: for Jakob to have his hat company, and for the hats to be a reminder of the mental health struggles we all experience. I wore my hat whenever I could, and put the tag in my wallet. With that, I bid my friend goodbye and moved back to Vancouver later that year.
Over a year later, in October 2016 my close friend and masters thesis partner, Philipp Altenburg decided to move out to Vancouver. I’ve never spent more time with a single person in my life than with Philipp during our studies. We wrote our thesis together on “How improv theatre can use interpersonal communication skills to improve collaboration.” Philipp loved improv theatre. He could talk about it for hours. There were several occasions when I would have to tell him that most people will likely stop caring about improv after a few minutes – and that this was probably one of the reasons why women would move from sitting beside us when we were out.
For six months, day in and day out, Philipp and I worked together on our thesis. Near the end, we would be spending close to 15 hours a day with each other. And when he moved to Vancouver, Philipp wanted to pursue – you guessed it – improv. Philipp truly believed it could break down barriers to communication, and provide others with so much joy.
After a few months in Vancouver, Philipp was struggling with visa issues, and had to move back to Berlin. We would have weekly Skype calls, where each of us would pick an issue or topic that we found inspiring and discuss it. On one of our morning calls, I asked how he was doing. I expected to hear the usual: “good.” But what came out of his mouth was something different.
“I am struggling a bit. But I’ll be fine,” he said.
He quickly wanted to move onto talking about our weekly topic. Instead, we spent the next hour talking about how he had been struggling with feelings of isolation and depression since his move back to Berlin.
After that call, Philipp and I talked almost every day. He continued to struggle, but never appeared to be in crisis. He talked with other close friends in Berlin too, and was encouraged go talk to a professional, but he said he would when he got a job and could get the costs covered by insurance.
After some time, Philipp seemed to be turning over a new leaf. He found a job and felt like he was beginning to understand what he was going through.
Things seemed optimistic, at least from the outside.
Philipp and I went a few weeks without chatting. I had been away for July 1st, Canada Day weekend and didn’t have cell service for those few days. When I arrived back home, it was late on a Monday and I received a message from another one of Philipp’s best friends.
“Do you have time to talk?” Right away, something didn’t feel right.
I waited anxiously by my computer until he woke up. During that time, I desperately tried to reach out to Philipp, to hear anything at all from him. When my friend called, I knew before he even said the words. I burst into tears and screamed louder than I ever have before.
On July 1st, 2017, Philipp Altenburg took his life.
As I write these words, I still have tears that run down my face.
Philipp’s death shook me to my core. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine he would take his life. Endless questions raced through my mind: How long had he been feeling this way? How deep was his suffering? Had it always been there? Why had I never asked? Did he think he couldn’t tell me? What did I need to do? These are all questions I will never have answers to. I couldn’t believe my friend was gone, but more shocking was how it happened.
Weeks later, a mutual friend of mine and Philipp’s reached out and asked if by any chance I had any more WIRTH Hats. He said he would really love to have one if I did, because it served as a good reminder of the realness of mental health.
That message stayed with me for several months, as both Philipp’s and Jakob’s passing consumed my thoughts alongside the larger epidemic of suicide, and the cultural and societal stigmas that surround it.
I thought of all the times I’d been down and out, feeling alone and isolated – yet never willing or wanting to share. My view of vulnerability was that it was weakness, and why would I burden others with issues of my own? A feeling that may be familiar to many. With all of this, I decided I would put WIRTH Hats into the world again – a symbol for a conversation, a reminder that we need to be more open and vulnerable with each other, and a promise to a friend to make the best hat company I could.
Since the launch of Wirth Hats in May 2018, we’ve hosted pop-ups at Patagonia and Sitka in Vancouver, Banded Peak Brewing in Calgary and Hooha Store in Copenhagen. In just five months, it’s already been a journey filled with amazing, sad, enlightening and eye-opening conversations. We’ve heard stories of people being on a ferry and knocking on stranger’s windows, just to show them they also have a Wirth Hat. Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder how perfect and fitting the name WIRTH is for this cause. Even through the sadness, there’s a part of me that feels like maybe this was Jakob’s gift to the world.
I truly believe that if WIRTH can help even one person, it will all be worth it. You can’t put a price on life, and that’s something I am willing to dedicate mine to.
It’s my dream for everyone in the world to own a WIRTH Hat, but more importantly, I want everyone to own what a WIRTH Hat represents. If we can get to a point where we treat our mental health the same as we do our physical health, I know the world will be in a much better place.
When we hold things in, they can come out in other ways. In both Jakob and Phillip’s case, neither sought professional help – which is painful to think about now – but unfortunately, it’s a common trend.
We must break this taboo. We all need someone to talk to who isn’t just a friend – an impartial professional who is there to listen, to let us know we are not alone and to help us make sense of what we are feeling and experiencing. This goes for when we are on top of the world, hitting rock bottom, and everywhere in between.
We have work to do to make counselling and therapy accessible for all, but more importantly, making it normal for all.
Forty years ago, if someone went for a run, it wasn’t normal. How things can change. My hope is that going to see a counsellor, therapist, psychiatrist, etc etc, will be the new normal over the next 10 years. Hopefully, even sooner than that.
I have one last story to share from our early journey, during our first pop-up shop at Patagonia, I was sharing the WIRTH story with a young man. As I was speaking, he was closely examining all the details of the hats. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Dude, I get it. It’s a hug for your head! Say no more!”. He then carried on to purchase several WIRTH Hats for his friends and family.
Thank you for reading our story. I will leave you with the words on the tags that arrive with every WIRTH Hat purchase:
“WIRTH Hats is a social venture, with all profits going towards mental health initiatives. WIRTH Hats is a tribute to loved and lost friends. It’s a commitment to conversation and openness. We aim to break down barriers and promote open dialogue to improve mental health.
The goal of WIRTH Hats is simple: we want everyone in the world to know they are not alone, and we believe owning a WIRTH Hat will help with that. By wearing a WIRTH Hat, we invite you to be open, to listen and to always remember – You’re WIRTH It.”
The WIRTH Hats Team
Ben, Chad and the rest of the WIRTH team