The Latest Trends in Headwear: What to Look For

Over the years headwear has gone from being an accessory to a fashion staple. Find out what's trending in this important category.  

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At their most basic, hats are intended to keep heads warm. Over the years, however, these functional products have become fashion staples. “Headwear is 6 percent of the $21 billion apparel industry, and it’s trending up,” says Dave Porter, vice president of sales at Sportsman Cap & Bag. Those in the decorated-apparel business would be wise, he says, to stay on top of what’s popular in this important category.

Hot looks

The newest trend making waves in headwear is the neon, or high-visibility, category. “Neons have been making a strong push for the last six months to a year,” says Gary Mosley, owner of Kati Sportcap. Neons come in a variety of colors, from yellows and greens to pinks and blues, and are showing up on nearly every style of hat, even the traditional trucker cap.

Another trend showing no signs of weakening is camouflage. Mosley and Porter both say the rugged print is their strongest category. Their companies are frequently introducing new colors and patterns of camo and are finding ways to incorporate it into all of their product lines.

“By far, the number one sport that Corporate America engages in is hunting,” Porter says. “Distributors and decorators often think of hunting as a basic camouflage hat. I don’t think there’s a limit to how many hats a hunter can own, we just need to give them more reasons to own them. Whether it’s pink camo or camo on a knit cap, there are solutions to sell year round.”

Other trends in prints include plaids and snakeskins, says Tina Liu, sales and marketing manager for Otto International. “We’ve also noticed a lot more demand for specialty materials.” Cork, chambray, and wax-coated cotton canvas are gaining steam, she says, as are performance materials, such as those with anti-odor and anti-bacterial features. “As for colors, dark charcoal gray is becoming as popular as black,” Liu says.

Trending styles

Traditional knit styles are a classic choice that are taking over an increasingly large market share. “They are here to stay,” says Sarah Schroedl of Thinc Actionwear. She says sports-themed knits, including NFL pom-pom products, are very popular, as are oversized and slouchy beanies.

“People are looking for a very soft hand feel with the beanie,” Liu adds. “In addition to the traditional acrylic or cotton knits, we are selling thinner and lighter materials, like jersey or polyester more frequently.”

Thanks to the popularity of knits, many headwear manufacturers say their lines are nearly equally divided between unstructured and structured styles. But in a sign of what may be coming down the pike, “we’re seeing a lot more people starting to shift over to structured caps,” says Nik Mirich, president of Headwear USA.

The reasons for the renewed interest in structure may not be only a matter of personal preference, Liu says. Decorators prefer structured caps because they are easier to embroider and print, she says, and sales professionals like them because they stand up and look nicer during a product presentation.

The best-selling structured caps are six-panel designs, particularly fitted and adjustable baseball caps. One of the most recent trends in ballcaps is the flat-bill style, which in the last couple of years has transitioned from the sporting realm to all retail and promotional caps. While rounded flat bills remain most popular, square versions are gaining traction.

“The younger crowd trend toward the flat bills,” Schroedel says. “In the 40-plus market you don’t see the flat bill doing quite as strong, but that’s not to say you won’t see someone who’s 60 rocking a flat bill.”

The downside of a six-panel cap is the seam that runs down the front, making it ill-suited for printing, sublimation, and bling, although it is well suited to embroidery. Decorators looking for structure without a front seam often prefer five-panel caps. “It’s a throwback style that’s been in the retail marketplace for a while and is now coming into the promotional realm as well,” Mirich says.

The most popular five-panel style among consumers is the classic mesh-back trucker cap. Thanks to a seamless foam front, these designs are also a decorator’s dream because they provide an open canvas for nearly any embellishing technique. “Trucker caps remain our number-one best seller,” Liu says.

That being said, newer products hope to find the middle ground between five- and six-panel styles. For example, a new seamless six-panel cap with laser-cut eyelets on the market allows for virtually any decorative technique.

“It’s the next generation of headwear,” Schroedl says. “The fact that it’s seamless allows the decorator to put an image on it and not worry about that top stitching.”

Local preferences

It may be surprising to hear, but manufacturers say there are very few regional differences in headwear trends. Camouflage sells incredibly well in the south, where hunting is commonplace, but the print is as popular in California.

“Camouflage has become a lifestyle,” Porter says. “It’s no longer a regional product. We were initially reluctant to show camo in Los Angeles, but we’ve been surprised by the sales in that area.”

Likewise, mesh-back trucker caps fit the beachy mentality of the West Coast and also provide desired breathability to Southerners. And while knit beanies may seem best suited to the colder northern states, they sell as well in the south. “It’s shocking to me, but I sell as many in Texas as I do in North Dakota,” Mosley says.

Decorated-apparel businesses should take note of one regional difference, however. Corporate and retail buyers often prefer headwear in the colors of their local college and major-league sports teams.

“What distributors need to understand is you don’t need to have licenses for those teams to show the team colors,” Porter says. “Tie into local teams with the colors of the products, not the logos and you don’t need the license.”

Smart business

For businesses that aren’t solely focused on headwear, it may seem difficult to keep up with the latest trends. Identifying what customers want, however, can be as simple as looking around you.

“Be aware when you stop at a convenience store, go shopping, or to go a sporting event,” Porter says. “I think we work too hard to try to identify what’s really hot in headwear, when it’s right in front of us wherever we go.”

Investing a little energy into identifying headwear trends is well worth the effort, manufacturers say, because the products offer plenty of benefits to those in the decorated-apparel business.

Caps are “one size fits most,” which is a smart option for group sales. Plus, a lower price point makes the products appealing during tough economic times. And they’re not a seasonal product so they offer year-round sales opportunities. Best of all, Mirich says, caps offer great margins.

“Within the promotional products industry, it’s tote bags and headwear that sit at the top of the pile for giving you the most bang for your buck,” Mirich says.

In addition to keeping an eye on these trends, farmiliarizing yourself with this shortlist of headwear terminology will help you navigate this complicated category of decorated apparel. 

Looking for more information on headwear? Make sure to browse the rest of our articles on this topic for additional tips, exclusives, video demonstrations and news.

Becky Mollenkamp

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Mo. Her work has appeared in Better Homes & Gardens, Prevention, and a variety of B2B publications. In her free time, she runs a food and music blog at cookingwithvinyl.com. 

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