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OFF TO THE RACES

A HAT-HAPPY CROWD DESCENDED UPON THE KENTUCKY DERBY, WITH HELP FROM LOCAL RETAILERS.<P>Millinery designers and retailers in Louisville are in hat heaven during Kentucky Derby season, when women don fancy hats for flattery and fun.<P>The 128th edition...

A HAT-HAPPY CROWD DESCENDED UPON THE KENTUCKY DERBY, WITH HELP FROM LOCAL RETAILERS.

Millinery designers and retailers in Louisville are in hat heaven during Kentucky Derby season, when women don fancy hats for flattery and fun.

The 128th edition of the Derby in May drew 150,000 spectators. Derby officials estimated 50,000 hat-wearing women, many of whom try to outdo the British royal racing set with headgear, attended.

Women at the Derby turned out in every size and shape of hat, from overpowering decorated numbers to elegant Royal Ascot styles. Gone were the horsy-themed toppers of past race seasons, replaced by embellished wide brims in one-of-a-kind straws, trimmed with elegant flowers, feathers and ribbons. Practical big brims (umbrellas are forbidden at the track) offered shade at the rail, but many ladies opted for tailored suits topped with less-fussy chapeaus. As one guest noted: “Big brims are nice, but they handicap you for kissing!”

New York designer Gabriel Amar took over designer Frank Olive’s hat business after Olive’s death several years ago. In March 2001, Amar held a fashion retrospective at Louisville’s Artopia Gallery, where he sold over 100 hats in three days. Then this year, he opened a temporary Frank Olive Hat Store in Louisville’s Oxmoor Center shopping area. On March 22, he filled the 300-square-foot space with a $10,000 hat inventory. By March 23, over half had sold. Restocking every few days until closing shop May 4, he sold $59,000 worth of Frank Olive hats. His retail collection starts at $150.

The Louisville unit of Jacobson’s department stores, located at Oxmoor Center, does 80 percent of its hat sales during the six weeks preceding the Derby. Jacobson’s increased hat inventories for the 2002 race season, loading up with coordinating daytime ensembles, as well. Black and white was the number one color combination in apparel, with pink, orange, yellow and red being the popular colors for hats, said Patrick O’Dea, couture sales manager at the Oxmoor store.

The challenge is to not sell duplicates — in clothing or hats — to race attendees. To create buzz, Jacobson’s staged several personal appearances by millinery designers, beginning in April. Ohio designer Jill Henning sold 25 straw hats, which range from $200 to $500, in two days. Joe Bill Miller, a Dallas designer, sold 40 hats, priced between $100 and $150. The success of pre-race personal appearances encouraged Jacobson’s to add local millinery designer newcomer Angie Schultz to the lineup the weekend before the races, with her Attitudes by Angie creations, which retail around $100.

Jacobson’s carries hats at its stores, located in the Midwest and Florida, but the majority of its hats business is concentrated in the race states, particularly from late March to the first week of May. Basic 12-month stock includes hats from Eric Javits in both dressy and tailored styles, as well as casual looks from Australia’s Helen Kaminski.

“Last year was a one of our best-ever hat seasons,” said Pam Shriner, accessories merchandise manager at Jacobson’s. “We added stock for 2002 and planned designer showings to personalize more expensive hats for ladies who want customized looks and elegant trims. It’s been a good season considering the general economy — up about 3 percent overall. We sold less in numbers, but more hats in higher prices over $100.”

Wide brims are still important, said Shriner, but cloche shapes have also been strong lately. Brighter colors are also gaining popularity, especially pink, in the Attitudes collection.

Another Louisville retailer vying for race-season millinery business is She of Louisville, a high-end specialty shop in suburban Colony Center run by Pat Schilling and her daughters Jamie Brown and Anne Garvey.

Outside of Derby season, the store keeps its inventory lean: During the winter, it’s styles from Kokin, and during the summer it’s Eric Javits’ packable straw hats that dominate the store’s hats offerings.

Starting in late March, She of Louisville brings in a collection of dressy hats from designers including Louise Green and Helen Kaminski. Popular lines included Dauyne Dial’s romantic neutrals and Jan Stanton’s British-style dressmaker hats with dyed-to-match trims. “We buy assortments in brands not carried by other stores in our area to avoid duplicates,” Schilling said.