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Blank Headwear Trends 2023: Baseball Caps, Bucket Hats and More

From finding the right fit to fashion detailing, today’s blank apparel options for decorators are upscale and varied

By Marcia Derrberry, Contributing Writer

Bucket hats, like these two Atlantis models, remain perennial favorites. Photo courtesy of S&S Activewear

March 17, 2023

For those of us in the decorated apparel business, a cap is a lot more than just a cap. This is true whether your specialty is embroidery or heat pressing. For those who aren’t, one look at the heft and endless selection available in any headwear manufacturer’s 2023 catalog will surely make a believer out of you. Not only are there seemingly hundreds of baseball cap styles, but more than ever, hat makers are offering a plethora of novelty styles with functionality in mind.

“Fashion styles like the brim Fedora and the cowboy hat are having a trending moment for us,” says Christina Marcantelli, business development, S&S Activewear. “From a wholesaler’s standpoint, it’s also trucker hats, fitted Dad caps, beanies, boonies, lifeguard looks, straw hats, eco-friendly styles, sun hats with UPF treatments and bucket hats.”

“As far as new trucker cap styles, the vintage look is popular with an unstructured, six-panel construction but with a low profile and the brim made of a vintage washed cotton, corduroy or even denim,” Marcantelli says, though she adds, “The traditional six-panel, snapback, structured, mid-profile hat always is our most popular style.”

Meanwhile, on-trend top-sellers for Flexfit include the One and Only Original Cap that has elevated the urban lifestyle and sports markets with its all-around, stretch-fit technology. Also leading the charge is the company’s Flexfit Delta line, optimized for performance with its lighter, sleeker construction. Finally, another option is the Flexfit NU line, which takes the original fitted cap and updates it with a stylish twist on the firm’s iconic cap.

Similarly, at Otto Cap, marketing manager Tina Liu says five-panel styles with flat bills remain best-sellers. “An added fashion detailing this year is a thick rope across the front of the cap where the brim meets the cap panel,” Liu says. “This flourishing trend for the trucker hat adds a unique detail to make it exciting, especially with colored ropes. Depending on if it’s for a specific group or corporation, they may want to match it to their colors, making it truly personal to that group. We’re also seeing new fabrications in some of our fashion styles such as corduroy, canvas, Taslon, nylon and performance materials.”

Women's Hats from the Infinity Product Group line for apparel decoration

The Infinity Her line is configured especially for woman. Photo courtesy of Infinity Product Group

Then there’s Infinity Her, an innovative line from Infinity Product Group (IPG) in a partnership with Sportsman Cap & Bag that is carried by no less than 16 partners, including Flexfit and S&S Activewear. Designed expressly for women, the line is composed of two brands: Evolve and Elude. Evolve includes a hidden ponytail feature offering the option of an opening for a secure high ponytail while still having the appearance of a regular cap when the hair is worn down. As for Elude, it includes a patent-pending, makeup-resistant sweat band that also is breathable and wicking, as certified by laboratory testing.

“After 20 years of selling headwear primarily designed for men, we realized women’s headwear was an overlooked, underdeveloped and under-serviced category in the headwear market,” says Infinity Product Group CEO Jeremy Laney. “Infinity Her is engineered with women’s needs in mind from beautiful patterns and bold colors to our Evolve and Elude technologies that solves problems that women have shared they have with baseball caps.”

Finally, at Imprint ID, while traditional headwear remains a top seller, the manufacturer also has a large selection of fashion caps, including camo, trucker, flat bills, bucket hats, visors and headbands.

“We specialize in traditional headwear because of our cut-and-stitch operation that [makes possible] fully custom work,” says Mike Emprey, vice president of marketing. “We’re able to tweak things to meet the need of the message that the distributor or reseller is trying to do for their clients. So, while we have more than 50 traditional baseball cap styles in stock, we’re not limited and can go an extra mile and customize caps.”

“Many materials can be customized with straps, snapbacks, different colors, Velcro closures. There’s so many things we can do,” Emprey adds. “One of the new things we’re bringing to the promotional products and decoration industries is that we partnered with a couple of the retail camo brands. So now we’re able to carry Realtree, Mossy Oak and True Timber. We’re able to use those patterns for customized headwear. When a client wants to do something that is traditional or less traditional, we have the ability to use those very prominent popular patterns that are from those suppliers.”

Emprey goes on to say: “We can do hats based on necessity, so if somebody has an idea and wants to make it tangible, we develop ways to get it done. For instance, if you want a beanie that’s got Viking horns and a built-in beard, we can do that. Other things we could do, just as examples, are a fishing hat that’s got places for lures or a custom order for a tech company that wants a throwback bucket hat from the ‘90s and includes a spot to hold a USB or a key card.”

Protecting the Planet with Eco-Friendly Apparel

As is the case with the apparel industry as a whole, sustainability and eco-friendlier blank headwear is nothing new to the market. Every year, though, it gains in importance, and manufacturers in turn have answered consumers’ call for action preserving the environment.

S&S Activewear, for example, sells more than 40 eco-friendly styles, with a number of other new brands in development. In 2023, look for a number of fresh offerings among its Atlantis caps, a product line at the heart of the company’s sustainability efforts.

“The Atlantis line has added three new styles using Polylana, a new, sustainable fiber,” Marcantelli explains. “This unique fiber helps lower the amount of energy, water and carbon dioxide used in the manufacturing process. It’s an undyed fiber that uses 76 percent less energy to create 85 percent less water and 76 percent less waste.”

Along these same lines, S&S Activewear’s sustainable Kastlfel line has added a number of cap styles this year, including a dad cap and a straight-brim trucker, all made of 100 percent organic cotton. The new trucker includes a back mesh panel fabricated from recycled polyester. These two brands, along with several others now available, afford yet another opportunity to talk about the importance of sustainability and a supplier or decorator’s commitment to helping protect the environment, says Marcantelli.

As for Imprint ID’s, Emprey says, “We have eco-friendly materials that we can use for custom orders to fit any customer’s needs. Our traditional stock lineup doesn’t necessarily have many products that are eco-friendly headwear pieces, but for the custom side, we can take whatever eco initiative you’re looking to obtain. We can source the needed materials and make custom headwear that is eco-friendly from stitch to stitch.”

Headwear Decoration Opportunities Abound

Historically, embroidery and screen printing have ruled the headwear market when it came to personalization and customization. However, digital decoration is both taking the headwear industry by storm and offering a number of unique opportunities decorators were never capable of before.

“DTF (direct-to-film) transfers are certainly gaining buzz,” says Liu. “[The process] doesn’t require any weeding, and there’s no marrying process where we combine the A&B papers for digital prints. The art goes right onto the film and is ready for heat transfer.”

SanMar Blank cap for apparel decoration

A sharp-looking cap from SanMar. Photo courtesy of SanMar

That said, Kyle Eslinger, strategic account manager, Decorator & Digital Solutions Team, SanMar, emphasizes that “while there’s a lot of interest in the DTF decoration technique,” there also remains “some hesitation” to buy in given the problems some companies may have had in the past.

“I think there may be a little bit of fallout from the direct-to-garment (DTG) effect from when its technology was in its infancy,” he says, though he adds “digital hybrid transfers are certainly something that we are showcasing. When our territory managers are out showing products, these types of transfers will continue to be a source of conversation.”

Sublimation too is a huge factor for headwear this year. Trending is a sublimated panel on the under brim of a baseball cap, that or a sublimated sash running around the brim of a straw hat or cowboy hat. Patches are another easy decoration method, adding value to an already relatively higher-priced item.

As for embroidery, Eslinger says its dominant position in the market doesn’t mean embroiderers are standing still in terms of the work they’re doing. Just the opposite, as they continue experimenting with new placements and exciting new looks.

“Embroidery does give [headwear] a higher perceived value, but the question is, ‘What can we do differently?’” he says. As an example, he suggests a company find somebody who’s “dialed in on puff embroidery digitizing,” so you can master it as well.

“It’s certainly a little bit more challenging than standard embroidery, but there’s ways to get creative and unique with it. Mixed media with embroidery and transfers combined for a higher profit margin item always are also a good choice to offer your customers,” he says.
Indeed, in today’s environment, by failing to push the envelope, so to speak, decorators run the risk of falling behind: not just in terms of their competitors, but what customers have come to expect in terms of cutting-edge looks.

“Much of it is driven by retail,” Eslinger says of today’s ever more demanding marketplace. “If you go into a store like Lids, consumers will continue to see more dimension, tactile, unique decoration methods. Now they’re seeing these really cool metallic, molded dimensional emblems. They then to go to their decorator or their distributor and ask if they can recreate the look. So simply seeing those products at retail is making them think, ‘How can I get this on my custom branded wear?’”

Food for thought, give today’s headwear scene, where the options seem endless, and the market’s decorating technologies are more advanced than ever. Capitalize on this lucrative market niche by offering your customers what they want, i.e., an array of exciting options, and your company standing a good chance of profiting from it.

Marcia Derryberry is a former editor-in-chief of Impressions magazine and content developer for the Impressions Expo conference program. She now owns her own media communications company, Derryberry Media Communications in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

The Color Wheel

The headwear color palette mimics what’s happening in T-shirts and other areas of the blanks market. Earth tones, like basic creams, tony colors, beiges, browns, black and white, are the ones we’re seeing across the board because consumers can wear them dressed up with a blazer or shacket or dressed down with a graphic tee and jean jacket, says Christina Marcantelli, business development, S&S Activewear. This is especially true of brim or Fedora hats, she adds.

A selection of Flexfit blank caps for custom decorators

Bucket hats, like these two Atlantis models, remain perennial favorites. Photo courtesy of S&S Activewear

Predicting colors is always fun. As Mike Emprey, vice president of marketing for Imprint ID, puts it, the question is something people take as a personal challenge to adapt to their life. He says there really is no rhyme or reason. It all depends on what the end user is looking for. With this in mind, in addition to earth tones, brights are also making a comeback this year, with much of the palette playing off Pantone’s Color of the Year, Viva Magenta.

“I think some of the more loud and obnoxious colors are what people are actually trending toward for some styles,” Emprey says. “Even the [Viva] magenta is a little more subtle. People love neon and bright colors, which leads to vibrant patterns and images.” Having a wider color range also gives graphic artists more freedom to create truly exciting designs for headwear.