Stetson Looks to Hipsters to Move Beyond the Cowboy Hat
On the 10th floor of a building in New York’s Garment District, above fabric shops that peddle rolls of silk and Spandex, Izumi Kajimoto is looking at a wall of 40 hats that make up her company's current offerings. The designs run the spectrum from straw Panama to cloth newsboy. To Kajimoto's right, dozens of hat boxes are stacked to the ceiling. Across the room are even more hats, vintage pieces that span 150 years and are displayed on individual stands that line the loft's industrial windows. Among them sits the one Kajimoto’s company is known for around the world: the cowboy hat.
Kajimoto is chief executive officer of Stetson Worldwide, the scrappy remainder of a hat kingdom that once served as both a paragon of American manufacturing and the frontier culture represented by such movie stars as John Wayne and Roy Rogers. Those days are long gone: As cattle jobs faded, Western shows vanished, and fashion trends changed, Stetson has struggled to survive. While the privately held company doesn't release revenue numbers, it acknowledges the need to diversify its clientele to stay relevant. Under Kajimoto, who took over in 2012, the company is trying to attract a new kind of customer — more hipster than rancher.
Her plan is to hook young, fashionable buyers by offering an eclectic, trendy mix of hats; everything from nylon boonies to satin-lined trilbys with tattoo designs is now part of the Stetson repertoire. "We're a lot of things that seem to be eclipsed by our overwhelming identity as Western," Kajimoto says across a long, wooden table inside Stetson's modest headquarters. "We must be at the forefront of haberdashery and fashion. I don't want the urban contemporary, city, international guy to think, 'I have nothing in common with Stetson.'"
Kajimoto, 55, is black-haired and petite, with a blue-and-white dress draped over her compact frame. She speaks deliberately, with little trace of an accent that would reveal her Japanese heritage. When Kajimoto was 11, her parents moved the family from Osaka to New Jersey. She arrived at Stetson after a 27-year career in fashion, working largely in licensing and holding senior posts at Calvin Klein, Donna Karen, Marc Jacobs, and Betsey Johnson. That was after Kajimoto got her start at Ralph Lauren, where she spent nine years pushing the brand into international markets. The Stetson job is a bit of a return to those roots, bringing traditional Americana to a more diverse customer lineup.
Stetson was expanding its offerings for years before Kajimoto took over. The company sells fragrances, home goods, apparel, boots, belts, and even branded bourbon. All those products hark back to the company's U.S. heritage. Knowing she needs to make that heritage seem cool, Stetson under Kajimoto's leadership has made a major push into the fashion industry with a focus on associating Stetson with events that attract young, hip attendees. "Depicting really cool, fabulous people with hats on is one thing," says Kajimoto. "But what really matters is getting the right hat on their head. I don't want to look like a dork in a hat."
Stetson was founded in 1865 by John Batterson Stetson, who started making the company's signature hat out of a small rented space in Philadelphia. He didn’t invent the tall, brown, wide-brim headpiece, but Stetson made better ones than his competitors. The right people took notice. For ranchers and cattlemen, hats were as important as boots and a saddle, serving as a shield from scorching sun and pouring rain. Stetson's hardy wares became a necessity and a status symbol among workmen, says Don Reeves, a curator and chair of cowboy culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma. “If you had this kind of hat, it says: 'I’ve made it.'"
By the early 1900s, the company's Philadelphia plant had grown into the world’s largest hat factory. At the time, most men wore hats, and Stetson thrived by selling all kinds of fashionable, everyday chapeaus alongside practical Western ones. The company endured the Great Depression and both world wars, when it made thousands of hats for the U.S. military. It then benefited from the popularity of Western TV shows and movies. “There was a romance of the Old West that they could play up in advertising,” says Sonya Abrego, a fashion historian at the Pratt Institute. "It started as functional and became fashionable." In 1947, sales of Stetson hats peaked at $29 million, the equivalent of more than $300 million today.
Soon after, the company started to flounder. Fewer people were working as cowboys and ranchers, and hats went out of style among city dwellers. Stetson's sales plunged to around $8 million in 1970, a more than 70 percent slide from the company's heyday. A year later, Stetson shut down production at its Philadelphia factory, later donating the land to the city and divesting its manufacturing operations. A company called Hatco now makes Stetson's emblematic cowboy hats at a factory in Garland, Tex. Stetson has survived as a licensing company. Whereas its bustling factory once employed more than 5,000 workers, fewer than 10 people, mostly in the New York office, now oversee Stetson's licenses and evangelize for the brand.
In August, Kajimoto and four members of her team traveled to Salida, Colo., for a festival headlined by Mumford & Sons. Stetson used the event to promote attire that has traditionally complemented the band's style of folksy music, with company staff members operating a booth at which attendees could try on and purchase a selection of caps. As Kajimoto sees it, easing nervousness about wearing hats is crucial to the company's future. "I find American guys most self-conscious about a hat," she says. "What's most important is that he feels comfortable."
Summer concert season is Stetson's busiest, but the push for new customers entails an endless churn of events through the year, each geared toward a specific demographic. In October, the team will go to Joshua Tree, Calif., for Babes Ride Out, a women-only motorcycle campout, to provide a Stetson-themed venue for riders to try on hats and take selfies in a photo booth. After that, Stetson will host launch parties in Los Angeles and New York to promote a new hat design and a corresponding exhibit in collaboration with artist and photographer Tasya van Ree. Stetson focuses on event-based promotions because they get hats on heads, an important step in convincing shoppers to buy an optional accessory. Kajimoto attends most of them in person.
Celebrity endorsements are a key part of Stetson's strategy for garnering mainstream publicity. While Stetson doesn't have a marketing budget, some famous folks promote the hats free: The company sends an unlimited supply of hats to celebrities, including Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, and Brad Paisley, provided they wear them in public.
The company also remains involved in cowboy culture. Every December, company reps show off Stetson wares at the National Finals Rodeo, a 10-day extravaganza in Las Vegas. When there's a major competition, from the Calgary Stampede to the Pendleton Round-Up, Stetson is usually there. It's all to maintain support among what Kajimoto calls "core Western culture," the rural, ranching families who still drive some of Stetson's business. "Not to say that Western runs itself," Kajimoto says. "You always have to replenish and support all of your efforts. With the Western side, the challenge would be complacency."
Combined, Kajimoto hopes that these efforts can convince more people to put a hat on, even if they're walking down San Francisco sidewalks rather than herding cattle in the Great Plains. As she flips through a book filled with ads from Stetson's past, she stops to hover over a drawing of two dapper men in suits, with hats on their heads. "What is this," she asks, "if not fashion?"