ATLANTA — Fifty-nine-year-old Judy Cody of Milledgeville, Ga., formerly a churchgoing homebody, has gone through a change of lifestyle.
Now known by fellow Red Hat Society members as “Lady Hibiscus, Duchess of Merrymaking,” she can be found decked out in a purple dress, red hat, rhinestones and feather boa. Like thousands of her contemporaries, she’s partying, shopping and spending money at an alarming rate. “If my family knew how much I’m spending on crazy clothes and accessories, they’d send me to the state mental hospital,” Cody joked.
Blame it on the Red Hat Society, the impetus behind an unlikely source for an apparel brand extension: a poem.
It all began in July 2000, when Sue Ellen Cooper of Fullerton, Calif., founded the Red Hat Society. Inspired by the Jenny Joseph poem “Warning” — which begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me” — Cooper bet numerous others would share the idea that being of a certain age bestows the right to dress and act however one pleases. And the more eccentric, the better.
Today, the Red Hat Society claims more than 100,000 members in 11,500 chapters, in all 50 states and 17 countries abroad. The group’s 2003 convention, held this May in Chicago, drew 2,000 women. The 2004 gathering in Dallas is expected to draw 3,500. Since online registration for next year’s event began in August, 1,600 women have registered at a fee of $325, 500 of these on the very first day.
What started as a social club, whose members dressed up for teas and luncheons, has metamorphosed into a marketer’s dream, with the Red Hatters clamoring for — what else? — red hats, purple dresses and a growing number of flamboyant accessories.
Cooper, now dubbed Exalted Queen Mother and grappling with the commercial potential of the group she founded, is sorting out licensing offers and private label sourcing possibilities for the Red Hat store in Fullerton, Calif., and Web site, while trying to protect the Red Hat Society brand. There are roughly 500 apparel, accessories, home and gift items offered both online at redhatsociety.com and in the 3,000-square-foot Red Hat store opened last year.
Through a licensing deal signed this May, Williston, Vt.-based manufacturer April Cornell makes official Red Hat Society apparel, mostly purple- and red-printed dresses and separates. The Red Hatters declined to divulge sales, but did estimate licensed Red Hat-brand items account for 20 percent of volume; Red Hat products sourced directly by the society produce 60 percent of revenue and the balance stems from goods that don’t bear the Red Hat Society stamp.
“This is a learning process for us,” said buyer Anna Evans, hired last year by the Red Hat Society to manage sourcing and selling. “We want it to be our style, not knockoffs, and we want to control quality.”
Evans’ concern is well founded. Unofficial Red Hat merchandise — marketed by vendors and retailers aiming to capitalize on the phenomenon — could be found throughout women’s apparel market at Atlanta’s AmericasMart last month. The Red Hat Society name is trademarked, but manufacturers and retailers know anything purple or red is red-hot and up for grabs. “We have no corner on colors, but we’re seeing our name and logo on [unofficial] product,” said Cooper, who oversees 30 employees, including her husband, who quit his medical technology job to become chief operating officer of the Fullerton, Calif.-based firm.
For example, Sugar Street Weavers is an Edneyville, N.C.-based maker of an unsanctioned handmade purple tapestry jacket with a red hat pattern, designed by local artist Jan Marie. At about $49 wholesale, around 300 of the jackets have been sold to stores since December. The response has prompted Sugar Street to introduce more Red Hat-inspired goods. “This was our best seller ever,” said Sugar Street vice president Carolyn Johnson. “It’s even outsold our collegiate-themed merchandise, which is always popular.”
Last fall, Bealls Department Store, a Bradenton, Fla.-based chain with 69 Florida stores, started selling red hats and purple dresses by Karla Marie, PGB, Ronni Nicole and Needles & Thread. Today, Red Hat-inspired items are offered in Red Hat concept shops in 30 Bealls stores. Avoiding the name “Red Hat Society,” Bealls has a “Red Hat Shop” on the home page of beallsflorida.com.
Aiming to promote those goods, Bealls participates in fashion shows staged by various Florida Red Hat Society chapters, some of which have drawn up to 500 women. A September credit card “statement stuffer” from Bealls hawks Red Hat-inspired merchandise at 30 percent off. Although Bealls doesn’t sell official Red Hat product, society members are apparently content to benefit from the exposure the chain’s Red Hat fashion shows bring to the group’s name.
Specialty retailers, such as Sarah Belle, an accessories store in Conyers, Ga., have been overwhelmed by product requests from Red Hat Society members. With hats at 80 percent of inventory, more than half are now red, from manufacturers including Carol Carr, Nigel Rayment and Napthali Abenaim. Kathy Harvey, Sarah Belle’s owner, said that with hats priced $135 to $625, sales tickets for the items are averaging $500. Harvey is planning to add categories as requests grow from Red Hat Society members, who drive up to 75 miles to shop.
The purple dresses and red hats donned by fans of Joseph’s “Warning” poem have been joined by more flamboyant items increasingly donned by Red Hatters, including red jewelry with hat motifs and red and purple boas and tiaras. In addition, accessories firms, such as Golden Stella and Alpine Jewelry, are making pink pins and earrings for women under 50. Those women, called “ladies in waiting” by the Red Hatters, can join the society, but they wear pink hats before they reach the half-century mark.
Cody, for one, said her membership in the Red Hat Society has altered her fashion sensibility. While she once favored classic, tailored clothes from Ellen Tracy or Donna Karan, she’s grown to like apparel she described as having a little more “flash and sass.”