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There’s a Cap For That

The Original Chuck chambray flat-bill cap (style 26723), offered by Americana Sportswear, is made of 80% cotton/20% polyester. The structured, high-profile, six-panel cap features a green undervisor and snapback closure.

April 11, 2013

Are your clients corporate executives, concert vendors, delivery drivers or Little Leaguers?  If you answered “yes,” then there’s good
news for you. Actually, even if you answered “no,” there’s still good news.

Today’s headwear market has wide-ranging appeal, providing everything from practicality to fashion-forward looks, performance-quality fabrics, sustainability and unexpected details.

Perhaps only rivaled by the T-shirt, the basic six-panel hat is one of the most versatile wearables offered in the decorated apparel industry, especially with regard to promotional usage. “People are looking for a place to put their logo,” says Margaret Crow, director of marketing for S&S Activewear, Bolingbrook, Ill., explaining what she believes to be the driving force behind sales in the headwear market. As a go-to advertising tool, a classic-style cap always is in demand, especially in markets such as youth sports, corporate branding and events.
“Hats are such a great add-on to a program,” Crow says. “If a screen printer sells a uniform program or if they’re selling printed T-shirts for some sort of event, it’s really easy to throw hats on it. We love the category.”

While the classic cap is an industry mainstay, each year brings a fresh selection of trendy headwear options. Across the board, suppliers agree that six-panel, curved-bill styles are the market’s most consistent sellers; they also stress the importance of knowing the trends that are widely seen on retail shelves and tapping into the customer base that wants what’s hot.

In order to keep up with what’s going on in the fast-paced retail market, Outdoor Cap Co., Bentonville, Ark., uses dedicated trend services, as well as extensive Internet and in-store retail research. The company also has a staff of about 20 accredited
full-time, in-house graphic designers that develop trends based on the end user.

“Trends come from everywhere — movies, streetwear, footwear, backpacks, music, outerwear, entertainers, athletes, vintage ‘retro’ looks and what sold or didn’t sell last season,” says Joyce Modglin, trend director for Outdoor Cap. “Trends are a combination of many things. With our expertise and research, we interpret it all,” she says.
This year, new fabrics, fits and colors that closely reflect trends in retail and the apparel market are turning heads and fueling a thriving market for promotional products distributors and apparel decorators.

When it comes to headwear styles, flat-bill and knit hats are talked about most for 2013. According to Crow, oversized knits are particularly popular.

“It’s such a strong trend at retail and on the streets right now, and it will be even bigger in our industry going into winter 2013-2014,” she says. This past fall, S&S Activewear added a larger knit inventory from Alternative that she says is performing really well.

The company also picked up a sought-after, “cool” industry brand, Original Chuck, this year. “Their flat bills have kind of a heather look,” she says. “I think that’s interesting, because that mirrors a trend in apparel right now. Heather sweat shirts and T-shirts are so popular.”

There’s also a continued interest in caps with a high-crown structure and plastic-snap closures (snapbacks) or mesh backs — or, as Outdoor Cap’s Modglin calls them, “old-school” hats.
The demand for headwear isn’t only influenced by style, but also by fabric and color. For fabrics, “active,” “technical” and “renewable” are buzzwords that have long been floating around the industry, and are features that manufacturers seek with their fabric mills.

“Performance fabrics have expanded outside of the gym and playing field, and into everyday life,” says Jeremy Laney,
executive vice president of marketing for Outdoor Cap. Mirroring the apparel sector, performance fabrics with features like moisture-wicking technology have obvious appeal when it comes to athletic or youth sports organizations, but the craze has extended beyond practical use.

“Many consumers want apparel that performs regardless of the activity; headwear is no different,” Laney says. “Performance fabrics have a ‘cool’ factor, and people will wear them even when they are not doing strenuous activities.”

While suppliers agree that eco-friendly features are not as desired in the headwear market, “green” and “renewable” options are available and important to certain niche clients. Sportsman Cap & Bag and S&S Activewear, among others, carry several “green” brands, such as Econscious and Mega Cap. These brands work with 100% organic cotton, recycled fabrics and other sustainable options.

This year’s color trends also mirror popular apparel shades, with neons making a big statement in the headwear market, particularly for more “retro” looks with snapback closures. Just as important as fashion colors, however, are neutrals and traditional earth-tone colors, especially for the corporate market.

In a similar vein, S&S Activewear’s Crow mentioned the camouflage trend as one that is important for anyone offering headwear to notice. “I don’t think you can talk about hats without bringing up camo,” she says. This trend, she explains, has been prevalent for about four or five years and isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
“Pink camo is especially popular. At trade shows this year, I’ve even been asked for child-sized pink camo,” Crow continues. Camo attracts a broad client base, with many styles that are embellished with elaborate embroidery or frayed patches for a stylish spin, and others that are practical for utility or hunting.

Beyond camo, military influence also is seen with a popular silhouette that Crow calls a “corps-style” look. “It’s like an old-fashioned, military, 1960s kind of cap,” she says. S&S Activewear offers a version from Alternative called the Fidel cap and an organic version from Econscious called the Organic Cotton Corps Hat, both of which she says reach a younger demographic and are selling well.

While this market puts fit first and foremost, customers still seek unique features and there’s a great opportunity to supply specialized products to loyal niche clients. Panther Vision introduced its CAPLight to the industry in 2006 at an Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) event in Long Beach, Calif., providing service workers, outdoor enthusiasts and homeowners with patented LED lighting integrated into ball caps.

“We are still growing after a little over six years,” says Chuck Freeman, director of
Panther Vision. “We have a continuous product improvement program and pride ourselves in offering promotional products that really work. We continue to uncover uses that require special designs.”

Beyond providing quality headwear,
suppliers also work to separate themselves from the pack by offering solutions for improved decorating. Embroiderers at Sportsman Cap & Bag use a technique called “tack down” stitching. Dan Saferstein, company president, says this process helps to improve the quality of its knits.

“This tack down is sewn into the knit in the same color of the knit and helps the embroidery stand out,” he says. “Sometimes, embroidery becomes difficult to see because of the thickness of a knit hat and this technique helps the embroidery from falling into the knits.”

Headwear’s overall appeal to various target markets makes it a smart addition to any offering. Today’s manufacturers recognize the revenue capabilities within the headwear market and are racing to keep up with the latest retail trends and provide the highest-quality basics.

“Headwear is functional, stylish, economical — it’s advertising,” Saferstein says. “[It’s also] universal and cost-effective — it’s a win-win situation.”

Lauren Mitchell is associate editor of Impressions. For more information or to comment on this article, email Lauren at