We talk to fifth gen­er­a­tion Akubra owner, Stephen Keir about the art of felt mak­ing.

THE AN­CIENT ART OF FELT MAK­ING HAS A MOD­ERN HOME IN AUS­TRALIA THANKS TO FIVE GEN­ER­A­TIONS OF THE KEIR FAM­ILY.

SHIBUI Issue - - CONTENTS - CURATOR KARINA EASTWAY MAKER AKUBRA IN­TER­VIEW WITH STEPHEN KEIR, MAN­AG­ING DI­REC­TOR OF AKUBRA PHOTOS CON­TRIB­UTED BY AKUBRA COUN­TRY AUS­TRALIA

CAN YOU TELL US YOUR NAME AND PO­SI­TION WITH AKUBRA?

My name is Stephen Keir and I am the Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of Akubra Hats. I am also part of the fifth gen­er­a­tion own­ers of Akubra along with my sis­ters Nikki McLeod and Stacey McIn­tyre.

IS IT COR­RECT THAT THE NAME AKUBRA COMES FROM AN ABORIGINAL LANGUAGE FOR HEAD COV­ER­ING? IS THERE A STORY AROUND HOW THAT CAME ABOUT?

For many years it was be­lieved that the name Akubra had its ori­gins as an Aboriginal word mean­ing head cov­er­ing. The Akubra trade­mark was reg­is­tered in 1912 and it was al­ways be­lieved that this was the case. It was not un­til the Keir fam­ily fi­nally de­cided to write a book on the his­tory of Akubra that it was dis­cov­ered that our orig­i­nal be­lief was in­cor­rect.

The name was cre­ated and reg­is­tered by Arthur P. Ste­wart, who at the time owned a menswear store and sold the newly-named Akubra hats, as well as act­ing as a dis­trib­u­tor to other hat re­tail­ers around the city of Syd­ney.

CAN YOU BRIEFLY DE­SCRIBE THE 800-YEAR OLD PROCESS OF MAK­ING THE RAW MA­TE­RIAL, FELT (BE­FORE THE FORM­ING PROCESS STARTS)? WHAT MAKES RABBIT FUR PER­FECT FOR THE FELT-MAK­ING PROCESS?

As we un­der­stand it, leg­end sug­gests dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages Saint Cle­ment was a won­der­ing monk who hap­pened upon the process of mak­ing felt by ac­ci­dent. It was said that he stuffed his san­dals with linen fi­bres in or­der to make them more com­fort­able. St Cle­ment dis­cov­ered that the com­bi­na­tion of mois­ture and per­spi­ra­tion and ground damp­ness, cou­pled with pres­sure from his feet, mat­ted th­ese fi­bres to­gether to pro­duce a cloth. St Cle­ment be­came the pa­tron saint for hat mak­ers, and the the­ory out­lined above is con­sis­tent with our man­u­fac­tur­ing process to­day. Rabbit fur is ideal for the felt-mak­ing process be­cause rabbit fur (un­der a mi­cro­scope) has tiny barbs that ac­tu­ally as­sist in knit­ting to­gether when we start our hat form­ing process.

WHO ARE THE FELT MAK­ERS AND HOW DID THEY LEARN THE ART OF FELT MAK­ING? ARE THEY DE­SIGN­ERS OR MILLINERS?

The felt mak­ers rep­re­sent the 100 staff work­ing on our man­u­fac­tur­ing floor. Em­ploy­ees are re­quired to com­plete a four-year ap­pren­tice­ship to be­come a felt hat­ter. Usu­ally each felt hat­ter can com­plete with ex­per­tise four spe­cialised tasks or pro­cesses. The ap­pren­tice­ship process is in­ter­nal to the busi­ness, with ex­pe­ri­enced trades­men and women train­ing new ap­pren­tices. As such the craft is handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The de­sign of hats usu­ally rep­re­sents a team ef­fort be­tween the Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor and Op­er­a­tions Man­ager, along with in­put from the sales team.

MAK­ING AN AKUBRA HAT IS A VERY TIME-INTENSIVE, HAND­MADE PROCESS. HOW IM­POR­TANT IS THE HAND­MADE AS­PECT TO THE BRAND?

It is crit­i­cal – we see our man­u­fac­tur­ing process as more like a craft. Each process and set of hands is cru­cial to pro­duc­ing a

qual­ity prod­uct. There are 162 steps in the process, each hat is han­dled 200 times in man­u­fac­ture and passes through 60 pairs of hands with each pair of hands act­ing as a qual­ity check. Qual­ity is para­mount for us.

IS THERE A STORY OR IN­SPI­RA­TION BE­HIND THE ORIG­I­NAL DE­SIGN/SHAPE?

I am not sure that there is an orig­i­nal de­sign. We make more than 100 dif­fer­ent styles to suit all peo­ple and all mar­kets. Cer­tainly styling has changed over the 140 years we have been in busi­ness as con­sumer tastes change. For­tu­nately, we have the ca­pa­bil­ity to move with the times.

THERE’S BEEN FIVE GEN­ER­A­TIONS OF THE KEIR FAM­ILY BE­HIND AKUBRA ... WHAT DOES TRADITION MEAN TO THE FAM­ILY?

It is much the fab­ric of who we are. Through my father and grand­fa­ther, I learnt the im­por­tant val­ues of our busi­ness, as they learnt from their fore­fa­thers. Tradition and re­spect sit high in my per­sonal val­ues and I be­lieve that busi­ness is much more than sim­ply max­imis­ing prof­its.

WHAT STARTED IN 1876 IS NOW AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE AUS­TRALIAN IDENTITY. WHAT’S BEEN THE SECRET TO KEEP­ING THE BRAND AND PROD­UCT ALIVE FOR OVER A CENTURY?

I couldn’t tell you in a few sen­tences. There have been many highs and lows over the past 140 years. Through that time we have al­ways en­deav­oured to stay true to our cor­po­rate val­ues. The most im­por­tant at­tributes for busi­ness suc­cess are hon­esty, fair­ness, qual­ity and gen­eros­ity. We al­ways re­flect back on th­ese val­ues. I think over­all we have a great rep­u­ta­tion with the var­i­ous stake­hold­ers in our busi­ness and again th­ese val­ues are about more than just profit. Hav­ing said that if you don’t have a great prod­uct and great peo­ple you are un­likely to sur­vive long.

CAN YOU EX­PLAIN THE TRADITION OF STOMPING ON YOUR BRAND NEW AKUBRA?

In one re­spect this tradition per­plexes me. Why would peo­ple do this to a brand new hat? I ex­pect they want

to give it that worn-in look that you see from our core cus­tomer – the out­back man and woman. Their beaten-up hats have their own per­son­al­ity and form part of their identity. In­deed, we are of­ten asked to man­u­fac­ture a worn look­ing hat, I guess a lit­tle like the jeans you see with holes in them to­day. Hats have had this trend for decades I would sug­gest.

WHAT COM­MU­NITY (OR CULTURAL) CON­NEC­TION DOES AKUBRA HAVE WITH THE AUS­TRALIAN OUT­BACK (OR INDIGENOUS COM­MU­NI­TIES)?

I guess our hats have be­come part of the fab­ric of the Aus­tralian out­back. I would strug­gle to put my fin­ger on how this evolved over time but we now see the term ‘iconic’ used when re­fer­ring to our brand. Of course, it is some­thing we are very proud of and work ex­tremely hard to live up to and out­back peo­ple are the most im­por­tant sup­port­ers of our brand. With­out them we could not re­main ‘Aus­tralian Made’.

WHAT COUN­TRY (OR CUL­TURE) OUT­SIDE OF AUS­TRALIA WEAR THE AKUBRA MOST?

We have been ex­port­ing since the 1960s. The USA was our largest mar­ket and dur­ing the time we spon­sored Greg Nor­man, who hap­pened to be the world’s #1 golfer, sales ex­ploded so much so that we had to place all cus­tomers on quo­tas. We sim­ply could not keep up with de­mand. To­day we ex­port all around the world with our largest mar­kets be­ing China and Ti­bet – seems there is a thirst for in­ter­na­tion­ally made prod­ucts in th­ese coun­tries.

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