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Headwear | Caps and their appeal | Trend lasting 150 years© (Nils Krüger)
November 2014

Why caps appealed

for 150 years

Caps are the most popular headwear among young and old, male and female, rich and poor. They are versatile, functional, fashionable and an ideal advertising tool. YAMKELA MKEBE takes a closer look at the cap market

The origin of the baseball style cap we now know as a fashion item, dates way back to the 1860’s in the US when the Brooklyn Excelsiors wore the first version of the modern cap with a small brim and round, forward-leaning crown, and a button on top of the stitching.

Across the Atlantic in Europe, Scandinavia and UK workers and students wore a softer, cloth cap, which didn’t develop into a fashion item — probably because the student caps were closely associated with a specific institution.

The cap became more popular as everyday headwear from the 1950s onwards as American men started going hatless and the popularity of the fedora faded. At the same time the growing number of children playing Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball started wearing their baseball caps off the field.

Caps were introduced in the promotional sector during the 1960s and 1970s when businesses started giving away plastic mesh snapbacks with foam fronts and a company logo on the front. Trucker caps dominated as inexpensive giveaways, mostly in rural America. Some companies began selling the caps.

In the 1980s, the popularity of baseball caps escalated as celebrities like Tom Selleck and Spike Lee started to wear them as fashion items and on TV. From then on, cap sales took off as more styles and designs were introduced and more apparel companies, musical acts, corporations and colleges used caps to carry their brand. The introduction of caps into the popular culture was led by hip-hop artists and rock brands who had been wearing them since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Different ways of wearing a cap were popularised during this period as these artists wore their caps turned backwards or to the side. Professional baseball players also followed the style of wearing their caps backwards.

The New Era brand became the official manufacturer of Major League Baseball (MLB) caps, which became hot sellers. The brand is now also the official on field manufacturer for the NBA, NFL, NHL and still hold the rights to on-field caps for the MBL. These caps transcended sport and the brand became the US market leader for fitted headwear, with 66% of market share, according to the article Hat Industry Statistics on the website

It is estimated that more than 80% of hat sales in the United States is made up of ball caps. In 2010 retail cap and hat sales in the States amounted to $1.7-bn.

The American trend of wearing caps off-field has spread all over the world. Today, the ball cap is worn by people from across the spectrum, including political parties, skateboarders, musicians, etc.

Local cap heritage

Although the South African consumers may not have a strong connection with any baseball team, the ball style cap is doing well in the local market.

“A cap is still referred to as the baseball cap and definitely has its heritage in baseball. It is the inspiration behind the cap,” agrees Dave Turnbull from Headwear24.

Others disagree. About 90% of customers don’t understand where the cap originated from, but the music industry plays a massive part in fashion trends, including caps, says Dustin Botha of Luksbrands, local supplier of brands like Skullcandy and Neff. Part of the popularity of caps can be credited to the entertainment industry, which plays a role in influencing the buying decisions of youngsters as well as mature customers, he says. “Fashion trends, music and what we watch on television play a huge part for my brands. When it comes to youngsters, what they see on TV or music videos is most likely to influence their choice.”

Why wear a cap?

South African cap distributors agree that a ball cap is now worn for different reasons than a team uniform, including functionality and fashion.

“Not only does a cap have a functional use, but it also allows the wearer to make a statement,” says Dayn Mamet of Reebok, local distributors of New Era, adding that they believe in self-expression and uniqueness and see a cap as a great way for individuals to communicate this.

Fit, form and function are the main factors driving the cap market today, whether it’s for fashion or functionality. With that said, influential people such as celebrities and sports stars play a huge role in what styles are trending, says Brad Havenga from cap supplier Flexfit headwear. “Caps have transformed from just being a functional keep the sun out of your eyes item to a fashion accessory, appealing to every target market,” adds Havenga.

“With skin cancer becoming so prevalent in this day and age, everyone wants protection from the sun and a cap or hat is the first thing consumers think of,” explains Turnbull.

Marketing tools

Besides being functional, a cap or hat offers a sponsor long term value in promoting a brand,” says Alan Joffe from SA Cap Manufactures. “I believe that the corporate market will always be around.”

The head is a multi-billion dollar marketing tool, says Botha. “When a person appears on TV, whether winning an award or standing on the podium, 99% of the time the camera would be focusing on his head and so will be the viewers. It is for this reason that I believe a cap is a crucial marketing tool.”

Caps are probably one of the most important advertising tools that any business could have. “It’s visible to everybody, it’s mobile, as well as unique to the brand,” says Havenga. “We have seen over the past few years that premium brands want to align themselves with premium products that are of the same handwriting as their brand, whereas in the past the cheaper promotional items were used with little effect. You can put a sports car emblem on a tractor, but at the end of the day, you still have a tractor.”

Most events or promotions take place outdoors and many companies like to use a cap or hat for promotional purposes, whether it is a golf day or any other event,” says Turnbull. “It is a functional way to protect the end user from the sun, but also the perfect opportunity to brand the item and sell your company,” Turnbull explains.

As exciting as it is, the promotional sector is seen as a massive investment. “One needs to be available to the market,” he says. “This means we have to have warehouses and sales offices in Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.”

Typical cap wearer

The South African cap consumer is “definitely not one that can be pigeon holed,” says Mamet. Gender, race group, age group and geographical location do not play much of a role as there is a style for every individual.

Men are more likely to buy caps than women. This is because “women are more into fashion forward design,” according to Botha. He explains that the beauty of caps is that there are different markets and they are a simple way to get new customers. Havenga also believes that the profile of South Africa’s cap consumer is “a much broader market as it’s suited for anyone and everyone, whether a struggling artist to or the guy driving his convertible sports car.”

“Fashion knows no boundaries when it comes to accessories,” says Turnbull. Caps are still the most popular headwear for men, although styles do change slightly. “The flatbill is having its day in the sun, but there is still room for the traditional baseball cap, as well as fashion accessories like the bucket hat or pantsula. The 5-panel cap has also made a big fashion statement in the last few seasons. But, the cap style that is doing well for them in South Africa is the 6-panel cap.

Keeping up with the fashion trend side of the cap business is a huge investment, says Turnbull. “We use sites such as WGSN to see trends and do 4–5 trend visits around the world per year in Los Angeles, New York, London, Barcelona and Amsterdam to make sure we are on trend at all times and are able to interpret those trends into our local retailers through our design department.

Where sold

Certain brands are more likely to sell better in a certain type of store.

With a strong sports origin, New Era, for example, sells well in the sports lifestyle market.

Their Skullcandy and Neff caps are available at different type of stores depending “on the brand and on what they are trying to accomplish,” says Botha. It all boils down to how the brand wants to capture its customers, he says, adding that marketing a cap brand is the same psychology as marketing any other brand.

Lifestyle and fashion stores are most likely to be selling their caps, says Havenga. However, there is an increase in the demand for high quality, fashionable, supporter headwear that would invariably be sold through sports retailers.

Local manufacturing

Over the past eight years the South African headwear manufacturing market has changed. “Traditionally, we were very strong with the retail independent stores throughout the whole of South Africa. We had a few strong brands and these were always the key to our success in the retail market.” says Joffe.

He alleges that the introduction of Chinese counterfeits that are sold cheaper “on every street corner and more so in front of our customer’s doors” has killed their retail business. “Our business today is mainly niche as we have the ability to service a customer who requires a customised cap,” he adds.

“The quality of these imported caps has also become very good and is therefore excellent value, making it more difficult for local brands to compete” adds Joffe.

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