David Reali's hats aren't like most other hats.
They don't feature the names of sports teams, or company brands.
Instead they catch the eye with intricate embroidery — a shimmering black rose, the face of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat — and life-affirming, inspirational slogans.
"The thing I enjoy most is seeing people walking down the street wearing my stuff," Reali told me.
The Schenectady-based Reali started his hat business about a year ago, when he purchased an embroidery machine.
He buys the baseball-style caps from a manufacturer and stitches his designs onto them. One of his newer and more popular caps depicts the Mohawk Indian word from which the name of Reali's hometown is derived: skahnehtati. On the back of the hat is a picture of a feather.
Back in August, I wrote about plans to build a "Makers' Space" on Hamilton Hill, as part of the new Hillside View affordable housing development.
The idea is to create a place where entrepreneurs and artists can develop innovative projects and plant the seeds for small businesses. I loved the idea, but I also wondered who would fill it. Who are Schenectady's entrepreneurs and artists — its makers, if you will?
I now have a partial answer to that question: They're people like Reali, people who make and sell their own wares, who view designing and creating their own products as a form of expression and an artistic outlet.
"I've always been creative, since I was a little kid," Reali told me, when we chatted over coffee last week.
I like Reali's hats, because they're unique, attractive and made with ingenuity and care.
But what impresses me most about them is that they exist at all.
Reali's apparel work is something he does in his off hours — the 31-year-old has a full-time job, which is how I first met him.
He works for the Schenectady non-profit organization The Center for Community Justice, where he helps ex-prisoners obtain employment and runs a program that helps non-violent juvenile offenders make amends and learn how to stay out of future trouble.
Reali's work is time-consuming and challenging, and I was surprised to learn that he spends a big chunk of his leisure time embroidering, marketing and selling hats.
"I do this before I go to work and when I get home," Reali said. "I do it until I complete an order, or until I get tired."
Since he got his business up and running, he's sold more than 1,000 hats, and has plans to expand in 2018, to hoodies, crewneck sweatshirts, jackets, scarves and socks.
"I have a lot of new designs for 2018," Reali said. "Some of my designs will carry over, but they will be revamped."
Prior to launching his business (with a friend, with whom he has since parted ways), Reali had never embroidered before. But he knew he wanted to do something creative, and he started researching how to embroider hats.
Reali believes hats are a way for people to express themselves, and that he can help spread an empowering and positive message with his caps. Even the name of his business - Love Yourself First - expresses an underlying philosophy.
"[Love Yourself First] is how I try to get people to feel about themselves," Reali said. "It's an expression of self-love and self-empowerment. ... I want to help boost people's confidence. I want to be the voice that reminds you that you're good enough. Who cares what other people think? Do what you're meant to do."
In addition to designing and selling his own hats, Reali also does custom embroidery. Most of his sales take place online, where he has a webpage (www.lyf.supply) and a presence on sites such as Facebook and Instagram.
"You have to make the world aware that you exist, so when you put out a product people will buy it," Reali said.
It's hard work.
"A lot of the work, it's tedious," Reali said. "There are a lot of long hours. Sometimes the [embroidery machine] breaks."
But Reali doesn't really seem to mind.
"I'm happy knowing I have a purpose in life," he said.
I'm happy knowing that Reali's work has found an appreciative market.
Local artists and entrepreneurs should be a source of pride, and with any luck Reali's business will continue to grow. I know I'm looking forward to seeing his new designs, and perhaps even buying a hat or a sweatshirt, if one catches my fancy.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.