Anthony Lora has an outsider perspective on the industry. Coming from a background in sales and distribution, the Burbank, California, native decided to start his own brand, Hemlock Hat Co., a few years ago out of his La Jolla-based garage in San Diego.
“I was walking down to Windansea Beach, and I noticed a ton of teens and young adults wearing wide brim straw hats,” he recalls. “These hats have been around for 30 years or probably longer and they have pretty much stayed exactly the same for that entire time, yet the sun-loving world is still wearing them at the beach, festivals, desert, lake, etc. A day later, I dropped into five local surf shops and scoured the web just to see how they were displayed, designed and what the product was selling for. I saw the void right away and went to work.”
Lora wasn’t trying to develop a product that would pigeonhole Hemlock into one particular category or industry. He says he really just identified an opportunity to elevate an already iconic product with a fresh twist, dedicating his focus exclusively on a category that oftentimes becomes an afterthought for other brands.
What has set the product apart even further — and also helped position the brand at some top retailers like Hansen’s and Surfside — has been Lora and team’s attention to detail with merchandising.
Hemlock devised a hat tower that can hold up to 90 hanging hats. Not only does it allow for an easier shopping experience compared to stacking hats, it also looks cleaner and preserves the integrity of the product.
The company has grown exponentially since then, tripling its team of reps. Now, Hemlock is set up to make a big push in key territories like the Rockies, Hawaii, Pacific Northwest, Florida, the rest of California and parts of the Northeast.
We caught up with Lora to take a look at what’s new with Hemlock, understand the impetus behind the brand and product, and see where this emerging brand is headed in the near future.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration behind creating Hemlock Hat Co.?
It was actually pretty quick and simple when it hit me. I began sampling and prototyping with a factory I found to create a few designs. I started identifying different fabrics, adhesives, colors, and small details that were important to me.
Finally, six samples later I was stoked on it! I knew we could make really unique and quality product, yet keep it simple and original. Six months later, I had 6,000 straw hats with wild designs in my garage.
What's the story behind the brand name?
I started thinking about what purpose is served by straw hats, snapbacks and beanies. They provide shade, coverage and style. That made me think of names of trees or plants, and Hemlock Hat Co. just kind of rang.
Hemlock is the name of a pretty badass tree. Hemlock trees can grow to about 80 feet tall and have really thick branches and leaves for optimal shade (just like our hats). They actually don't need a ton of sunlight to stay strong and healthy. The name is kind of a play on the shade aspect and uniqueness of the tree, which is pretty much the same deal as our hats — one-of-a-kind, provides coverage and keeps you super cool!
How did you see an opportunity to elevate the straw hat? What was the demand you saw in this market?
The straw hat is "iconic." It has already earned its place in the retail game and is trend proof. But when I think of something being truly "iconic," I think of something badass and epic. I felt like the straw hat was kind of missing that vibe.
We had no clue if people would think the hats were too wild, but we did notice that there was room for improvement and we could bring a premium look and level to it while still keeping it simple. We partnered with some of the best retailers around in our first year of business, like Surfside, Hobie, Active Ride Shop, Hansens and Swell.
These retailers gave our product a chance and proved to us that it was worth moving full steam ahead. We looked closely at the brands that were killing it and really growing. We noticed it was all the brands that focused on one product or category and were bringing a fresh perspective to classic products. We figured it made sense to completely focus on one category and keep it simple.
Can you tell us more about your strategy to enter the retail space?
Our goal with retail is to really focus on getting fixtures and our other merchandising options in front of the retailer to show them the benefits of the reduced space, clean look and overall presentation. Our product usually speaks for itself since it's different and catches the eye.
One thing that was super important to me with retail was not to pigeonhole ourselves into one category, which is typically surf for this product. That's why you won't really hear us refer to our product as a lifeguard hat; we didn't want it to only be associated with the beach and surf scene.
I knew since day one that we could get into different retail categories like outdoor, moto, fishing, and so on by creating designs more in line with their target audiences. The straw hat is an empty canvas to paint on that we can offer to everyone.
Right now, we are getting product out the old fashion way – a bad ass team of reps who all have strong retail relationships in their territories, long time industry knowledge, and have open minds to our wild and crazy products.
We ship all our product and fixtures out of our warehouse in San Diego. We don't use fulfillment centers or 3PL mainly because we like to have complete control and oversight of our product, the quality, inventory and the whole deal.
Our goal is to really be a strong brand domestically and when the time is right we will go after the international market and probably have to pick up some distributors or 3PL. But for now, everything stays in house.
What exciting collaborations and projects does Hemlock have in the pipeline?
We just did a hat for the Red Bull Rampage event taking place at the end of October. It's an insane event in Utah for free ride mountain biking. They contacted us to do the project, showed us a really rad print and of course we said yes, I mean it's Red Bull. These will be available exclusively at the event and on the Red Bull website.
We are also working on a project with Ballast Point brewery that drops in 2018, and we're beyond stoked. The craft brew scene is so deep in San Diego and they are probably one of the most iconic beer companies around. Plus, they are literally our neighbors. We have a couple other collaborations in the works for 2018, but you will just have to keep your eye out.
In what other ways are you growing the brand, as far as distribution and marketing?
We really want to keep things organic. We don't want to rush the growth of the brand, but instead we want to have a good time with it. We know if we take on every big retailer tomorrow, it could bury us and we plan on sticking around for a long time, so we are just growing as we see fit but we're still progressive.
We are constantly looking at new products, different materials, design ideas, collabs and any way to better the brand. In 2018, we will introduce some different types of headwear and accessories. Distribution will stay the same: in-house, quality-controlled and only distributed by us.
As for marketing, we plan to keep it pretty organic as well. We're always brainstorming new ideas and ways in which we can send as much business to all of our retailers and ecommerce sites. We also have a really cool campaign in the works that's all about sun defense and safety while still keeping it fun outside.
What are Hemlock's goals leading into 2018?
For 2018 we're really focused on expanding our retail footprint. We're growing our team of reps and adding new territories for spring 2018. We are taking on all of Florida, California, Arizona, Nevada, Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, the Rockies and parts of the east coast. We plan on doing a few trade shows like Surf Expo and Agenda, which we have never done before. We plan to continue rolling out more special projects and collabs and bring new products to market that fit our brand vibe.
Do you feel the hat market is a saturated one? If so, how do you position another hat company in the space and make it stand out.
I don't feel the hat market is really that saturated. Do I know every brand out there makes a hat or 10? Absolutely. But not too many make it their sole focus and put 100% of their time and resources towards it. I can honestly say there are only a few brands out there that completely focus on the hat market. It's mainly just another accessory in a long line up of products for everyone. So we plan on making it all we do and get really good at it when it comes to materials, prints, details and innovation.
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