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High-Hatting Popular Fashion

2 Northern Californians Strike Gold With Retro Baseball Caps

August 27, 1998|DAVID DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From swing music to martinis to the Rat Pack, vintage style (and styling) remains a cool trend. Blue Marlin, the San Francisco-based clothing company, has tapped into that mode with its line of classic hats, sport shirts, jerseys and sweats. Old-hat--and yet hip--this small, quirky company has discovered that retro sells today.

"Everything we do has a modern feel, but the whole line is a return to old school," says Erik Stuebe, who co-founded the company in 1994 with partner-designer Francoise Sejourne. "The retail imperative is to keep the product fresh."

Blue Marlin's specialty is replica baseball hats from the 1920s through the 1950s. The idea for the hats came when the 32-year-old Stuebe noticed that he received compliments every time he wore a baseball hat from his own collection. After he graduated from Harvard Business School and worked for a year in the sporting-goods industry, Stuebe teamed with Sejourne, his neighbor at the time in Palo Alto, and the duo designed a series of caps inspired by the 1994 Olympics in Atlanta.

Stuebe and Sejourne soon shifted to now-obscure Negro League, a Latino league and minor league teams. Once they figured out how to track down and purchase the rights to the old names and logos, the company's fortunes took off. Looking for a 1926 Los Angeles Angels cap? How about a Cuban Sugar Kings hat from '44? Or perhaps you're interested in a 1951 Birmingham Black Barons model? Blue Marlin stocks these and some 33 other models, priced at about $32 in retail stores.

Last year, the company had sales of about $2.6 million; with sales up 180% in the first quarter of 1998, the company projects sales of $4 million this year. A small percentage of the profits is paid to surviving players from the Negro League.

"We sell Blue Marlin's whole line, but we sell hundreds and hundreds of their hats," says Joan Henneberger, owner of Picket Fences on Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles. "Both men and women love them."

The Blue Marlin magic, says Henneberger and other retailers, can be found in the hats' design, which have a low-profile crown, an extended bill and a snug fit.

"Cheap hats don't fit well on your head, but these have a deep fit," says Henneberger.

Each hat is individually crafted to achieve worn-in comfort. To replicate the weathered look, employees painstakingly boil the wool-felt letters of the hat appliques in tea and dip the buckles on the back of the hats into gun-barrel bluing solution. The letters of the appliques are hand-placed and satin-stitched.

Designers and stylists appreciate the attention to detail, and they've used the hats in hit films and TV shows. Greg Kinnear wears a Blue Marlin in "As Good as It Gets," as does Noah Emmerich in "The Truman Show." The hats have been spotted on such TV shows as "Friends," "Party of Five" and "Just Shoot Me," while celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Willis, Sugar Ray Leonard and Cindy Crawford have used them to duck the paparazzi.

"People tend to make a statement with what they wear," says Stuebe, who grew up in Redlands. "With Blue Marlin, they're saying they don't want to dress like everyone else--they don't want to wear the usual Chicago Bulls or Dallas Cowboys gear."

To keep the product fresh, Blue Marlin introduces new models and discontinues older ones every six months. The company limits its line (and increases its exclusivity) by selling only to select high-end stores. That's a marketing strategy Southern California retailers like Fred Segal, Union, Anthropology and Picket Fences appreciate.

"At Fred Segal, it's very important that we carry items that you don't see [everywhere] else," says Karen Meena, buyer at Fred Segal Melrose. "Our customers want creative and original clothing, and Blue Marlin's product is unusual within a very basic genre."

The hats are such a hit that customers collect them, Meena says.

"We have lists of customers for Blue Marlin hats. They wait for the next one to come out," she says.

The popularity of the baseball caps, says Stuebe, has overshadowed the rest of the company's line, which includes vintage-inspired fleece sweats, jerseys and T-shirts.

"It's somewhat frustrating," he admits. "We're known as the Negro League cap company, but now our sweats sell as well as our hats. The company will continue to evolve."

* To learn more about Blue Marlin products, check out the company's Web site at http://www.bluemarlincorp.com.

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