Amid all the holiday shopping, hat sales in New Orleans are up
Published: Sunday, November 20, 2011, 6:32 AM
Huge LCD TVs, colorful sweaters and noisy Angry Birds plush toys may not be on top of everyone's Black Friday shopping list. In New Orleans, the hot item may just be a hat.
Fleur de Paris co-owner Joseph Parrino said his hat season heats up on Thanksgiving, the moment the horses leave their gates on opening day at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
"Horses go hand in hand with hat wearing," Parrino said. "It's prime time to sport your finery and your hats."
Parrino said sales at his French Quarter store have increased 20 percent every year for the past four years, attributing the trend to young male "hipsters" who clamor for the classic Fedora and Trilby, and to socialites who covet custom-made felts or wide brims trimmed in vintage buckles, bows, flowers and feathers designed by their resident milliner.
"It's always appropriate to wear a hat at the track," said Jim Mulvihill, Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots spokesman.
Mulvihill said the topper trend is so popular at the races, Starlight Racing and at Louisiana Derby Day, that the Fair Grounds increased the stock of Les Dames Chapeaux hats and fascinators at its retail store.
But it's not just dressing up for a day at the races that's driving hat sales. Local retailers said the growing demand for headwear has to do with the popularity of retro styles, what the celebrities are wearing, smart spending practices, and environmental concerns.
In fact, hat sales nationwide are proving to be recession proof.
The NPD Group, a leading market research company, reports that from October 2010 to September 2011 total U.S. adult hat and cap sales showed 7 percent growth.
From October 2010 to September 2011, sales grossed more than $1.7 billion, up from $1.6 billion from October 2009 to September 2010.
Global Industry Analysts Inc., another market research firm, projects the global hat, cap and millinery market will climb to $6.3 billion by 2015.
"Our company is projecting a 35 percent sales jump in 2011," said Kevin Doyle of the hat firm Goorin Bros.
Doyle, who opened the fourth-generation company's French Quarter location in July, said New Orleans has a rich hat culture.
"People here wear hats and they wear them with style," he said.
Doyle credits their sales growth to the quality of their brand, 40 percent of which is hand made in the firm's original Pennsylvania facility, and a customer service experience that includes a seated consultation, measurements and more than 500 styles to choose from.
Doyle said new customers who buy a "starter hat" in the $35 to $55 range soon return for a luxury purchase of up to $140.
Fedoras, Flatcaps, and Cloches, a 1920 design with a round crown and a modeled brim, are their best New Orleans sellers, he said.
"In the 1960s and early 1970s everybody wore hats," Diane Feen, editor of Hatlife.com, said. "Leaving the house without a hat was like leaving the house without your shoes on."
Following the stars
Feen said when the fashion fizzled so did countless stores and manufacturers, but now the industry can thank the resurgence to youngsters who wore baseball caps who are now seeking more mature headwear, and to celebrities and musicians like Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga who popularize hats every time they get photographed wearing something new atop their heads.
"When Kate married William," Feen said reflecting on England's Royal Wedding in April, "fashionable women started wearing fascinators, elaborate headpieces and headbands that don't flatten your hair. Now fascinators are huge."
"Fascinators make up a sizable slice of our ladies dress hat sales," said Mike Gietl, owner of Accessory Wholesale Inc. in Harahan.
From 2009 to 2010 he saw a 26.5 percent sales jump in ladies dress hats. He expects 2011 to be on par.
"Our associates overseas tell us since the Royal Wedding fascinators are selling even better than hats," Gietl said. "But we've seen all types of hats grow in popularity in the last 10 years. Hat sales trend up year after year beating out our other accessory categories."
Gietl said he also sells lots of cowboy hats thanks to Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears. "When they wear those straw cowboy hats, that gets cowboy hat sales really kicking," he said. "Young people follow what celebrities wear."
'Fashionable and practical'
"Buying a new hat is more affordable than buying a whole new suit or an outfit," Paul Meyer, of Meyer the Hatter on St. Charles Avenue, said. "It's an economical way to accessorize and breathe new life into an old wardrobe."
Meyer, whose sons represent the fifth generation of retailers at the family's 117-year-old business, said he's been selling more small brim dress hats, Fedoras, and Kangol caps.
Meyer said there's also an increased demand for luxury brands since notable customers, including Aaron Neville, Jimmy Buffett, Nora Jones, Kermit Ruffins and Irma Thomas, are seen wearing them.
"Wearing a hat in New Orleans is both fashionable and practical," he said, "especially when you're trying to protect your face from the sun."
Carolina Gallop, a local fashion designer and sewing instructor from Honduras, said she designed and manufactured ladies hats out of necessity. As a frequent outdoor festival attendee, she needed a hat to shield her skin from the sunlight.
"I was shocked to find how many people wanted hats," Gallop said of her large brimmed "colorful and playful" inventory. "I saw a real fashionable and environmental need for them. When you think of Southern women, you think of hats. You feel elegant when you wear one."
"Ten years ago, you'd never see hats being sold at an apparel store," Hatlife.com's Feen said. "Now, more and more are going to carry more hats than ever before. And the ones that don't are missing out."
"We've seen a 30 percent increase in hat sales since 2009," Evie Poitevent, co-owner of Feet First, said from her Magazine Street location. "It all started with Brad Pitt wearing that Newsboy Cap around town. With menswear inspired fashion all the rage, many women wanted to wear that hat and it impacted our sales."
Even though Feet First is primarily a shoe store, Poitevent said they are loading up on straw Fedoras and wide brimmed hats for Spring 2012 anticipating their biggest hat sales season ever.
"The hat is the 'it' accessory du jour," she said.
Parading in style
"Hats are the new shoes," Claudia Lynch, founder of the New Orleans St. Catherine's Day Hat Parade, said. "No one may notice your shoes in a crowd, but if you wear a hat, you'll definitely stand out."
Lynch, who will be wearing a beaded and embellished lampshade hat adorned with a glittery shoe in today's marching parade, said her second annual celebration of hats is expected to draw more than 150 behatted ladies to march along a one-mile sidewalk route at 10:30 a.m. at St. Charles Avenue and Pleasant Street.
"I was a milliner and seamstress for 25 years," Lynch said, "and I always wanted to recreate the St. Catherine's Day Parade honoring the patron saint of single women, milliners and seamstresses, like they do in Paris. Since there's lots of champagne involved, New Orleans seemed like the perfect place to organize one."
Lynch said you don't have to be single or a professional hat maker to march with the krewe. You just have to love hats.
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