Global Economics

Harada: Hatmaker to the Stars


Misa Harada has revitalized the dormant millinery business with eye-catching designs worn by TV and sports celebs, and even the Rolling Stones

Misa Harada's sense of style has always been informed by rebellion. So when the Japanese entrepreneur and hat stylist decided to launch her own business in the late 1990s, her goal was to break away from the millinery status quo and use eclectic, avant-garde design to woo a younger, more trend-conscious clientele. The result? Today, Harada is the hottest hand in hats, with designs that dress the heads of TV stars, sports figures, and even members of the Rolling Stones.

In what seemed like an anachronistic business, Harada has successfully redefined headwear fashion for a new global audience. She set up a sole proprietorship in 1998 with no external financing and booked revenues of $120,000 in the first year. Now, her sales hover just below $1 million annually and her brand recognition is soaring internationally.

From rebellious student to international trend-setter, Harada has come a long way since her conservative upbringing in Japan. Born in 1968 in Nagoya, she went to London in 1987 to attend university. But her newfound freedom and the '80s fashion scene, which married street style and punk music, fueled her creative energy. She dropped out of school, enrolled at the Royal College of Art, and had her first taste of hatmaking.

"Capturing the Zeitgeist"

Today, she deals in a dazzling range of styles: Trilbys in shocking pink, oversized Bakerboy caps, asymmetric Cloche hats in liberty cotton, and trimmings of silk, leather, metal buckles, or Swarovski crystal. The style is at once edgy, cool, and elegant. "Design is about capturing the zeitgeist," Harada says. "I am interested in street culture movements and in translating them into a 3-D expression you can wear."

Thrust into the real world after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1994, Harada went to work for stylist Frederick Fox, who supplied hats to the Queen. There, she designed haute couture and commercial lines, and learned the tricks of the trade, from design and materials, to quality control and cost management. "Sustaining a hat business is difficult," she says. "Competition is fierce, production costs are high, and brand value primordial."

Worse, it's not a very big market. In Britain, the number of hat designers is so small that the Employment Dept. doesn't even keep statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau counts 251 hat manufacturers, with retails sales totaling $978 million in 2005—most of that from baseball caps. The luxury hat market is even smaller, ever since the hat industry declined rapidly in the 1960s. But since the 1980s, it has started to come back, with annual growth of 5% to 10%, propelled largely by the fashion choices of entertainment industry icons.

Surprisingly Affordable Headpieces

Harada's big break came in April, 2001. She had networked heavily in the fashion world, and managed to get a series of hats featured in ID magazine. Pop star Janet Jackson spotted them there, and handed Harada a commission to design chapeaux for the star's upcoming world tour.

That was the catalyst for a successful entrée into the music and film industry. Harada's hats now regularly embellish the pages of magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and W, as well as showing up on the heads of characters in TV series such as Sex and the City and Ally McBeal. She has outfitted pop novelties the Scissor Sisters, and last year won a gig to supply hats to Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones for their most recent world tour.

Such high-profile deals have helped Harada grow annual sales at 23% while maintaining profit margins of around 60% across her collections. Yet her headpieces are surprisingly affordable, often in the range of only a few hundred dollars.

Documentary Subject

Harada remains the sole designer and retains complete control over operations, aided by a team of six managers. Her brother Shintaro runs her business in Japan. Across the company, she has tried to instill a culture that focuses on cultivating long-term relationships, maintaining high quality, and keeping costs down through advantageous purchasing deals.

But commercial success hasn't lessened the admiration Harada enjoys from the fashion world. "Misa's uncluttered, simple, sharp designs make for really interesting pieces of art, as much as they are hats," says Ian Bennett, an independent hatmaker and millinery lecturer at the Royal Academy of Art. "Being an individual is difficult in this market."

A rising star in London fashion circles, Harada enjoys even higher status in Japan, where she is considered an über-cool fashion guru. She was recently featured in a three-month-long documentary series produced by Japanese national broadcaster TBS entitled Zyonetsu Tairiku (Passion Continent), and has been commissioned to write a lifestyle book. Her collaboration with Japanese retailers extends to the internal rebranding of certain Japanese department stores, including Isetan, Hank-Yu, and Estnation.

To open up new markets, Harada has established women's and men's lines, and recently launched a baby line, which is fast winning customers in Japan. Today, Harada puts out 300 styles in six broad collections every year. "I make hats for people who move with the times, icons of everyday life," Harada says. "Like them, I don't stick to conventions. I'm not scared of taking risks." Nor, apparently, are her loyal customers. Hats off to Harada!

For a look at some of Harada's designs, and how she makes a hat, click here for a slide show.

Haq writes for BusinessWeek.com from Paris.

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