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Peak practice

US cap brand New Era has established itself as the headgear of choice for young UK urbanites, and aims to capitalise on this popularity with a London store

With a history steeped in baseball, cap brand New Era is as about as American as they come. To add to its Stateside heritage, it has branched out into sports such as basketball and ice hockey that also ooze stars and stripes.

Although the brand has now outgrown its reliance on these sports, it has done so with help from artists from a different, more globally popular part of US culture. Hip hop and rap stars have adopted New Era's "ballcap", the 59Fifty, a structured and fitted cap with a high crown and - usually - a flat peak. The style has been lapped up by copycat kids and wannabe urbanites worldwide.

The brand's retail operation is now starting to take off. A third standalone shop - the first in the UK - is due to open on London's Brewer Street next month, while the European head office at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire now employs 65 people. New Era is banking on the fact that the UK will like the taste of its distinctly American flavour.

Gareth Ellis is one of the brand's two UK product managers and has a good handle on its popularity over here. He works on non-59Fifty product - the side of the business that makes less structured baseball caps and all other headgear. Customers include JJB, Topman, JD Sports, Next, Republic, River Island and Ted Baker.

Ellis says: "It's a fan product in the US, thanks to the baseball link, so everyone is a target customer. It's not quite the same in the UK, but the NY logo (from the New York Yankees baseball team) is a strong brand - our US counterparts don't understand why we can't sell other logos in similar numbers. But the LA logo is growing in popularity, particularly as David Beckham is moving there and has been snapped wearing the cap."

River Island men's accessories buyer Martin Everitt agrees. "The NY logo is a strong seller, but because it's a common emblem our aim is to differentiate our product. So we have developed grey marl-fronted trucker caps and knitted beanies with peaks. We are looking to add further categories too."

The scale of New Era's UK business is not always obvious. But European chief operations officer Peter Lee says: "The London store will be key in raising awareness of the brand. We have a lot of products in the market but people don't know about them."

The UK store will follow the blueprint of the brand's two US shops, in its home town of Buffalo and in New York City. Bare brick walls, varnished floors and leather seats provide a backdrop for the huge range of caps, which will include exclusive product in each of the stores.

Director of retail operations Sid Dey says: "Tribalism is key to a lot of our sales. City skylines and local landmarks give a cap cachet and also define a style. When the London store opens, tourists will want to buy a cap with London-specific designs. About 30% of the caps will be exclusive to that store."

The brand is moving away from ultra-bling styles involving unusual materials such as flocking, foiling, studs and sequins and is focusing on a more sober look. But it still offers caps in a selection of outre fabrics, including snakeskin, crocodile, cashmere and satin, with retail prices of up to US$1,000 (£500).

But shoppers do not have to be well off to spend big on baseball caps. Take Omar Mejia, the assistant manager at New Era's New York store, which opened nine months ago. A fan before becoming an employee, he owned "about 150" New Era caps when he started at the store. At about US$30 (£15) each, it adds up to a hefty outlay.

This is the kind of obsessive collector, similar to 'sneaker freaks', that the UK business is seeking to attract with its lifestyle collections.

Under Lee's guidance, the European - still mostly UK - arm of the business has become a US$36 million (£18.1m) operation, selling to 2,000 accounts across Europe, including 200 in the UK.

It has taken Lee just five years to grow the brand to this level. He initially brought it to the UK in his role as distributor, but in 2003 proposed a joint venture with the company to set up New Era Europe. In 2005 he sold his share to US owner Chris Koch, but remains head of the European business.

Although convinced of the brand's potential, he is realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. "We don't have the baseball fans that the US has. But we make caps for 17 Premiership football teams, including the European licence for Manchester United, 13 German Bundesliga teams and the England national team."

While the these deals are undoubtedly canny moves, football fans are less devoted to caps than followers of baseball, where the cap is an authentic piece of the kit. Mohammed Khan, owner of Westside in Ealing, west London, which stocks the caps, says the cultural differences are significant. "This is not the US. We don't have the same cap culture here. But we are making progress with it as a fashion product - we are past the stage of people saying 'it's just a hat'. Instead, customers now want the exclusive designs and that's what will drive it forward. We need more collaborations. Deals with brands such as DC and Stussy give New Era an underground feel that people want. That keeps it fresh."

Lee agrees. "We believe in keeping every retailer's styles different. A decade ago you could sell the same product to a store twice a year, but now it must be new and different all the time. The collaborations are really important, and designs with the likes of Quiksilver and Billabong are great for crossing over into the skate and boardsports scene."

That will be music to Khan's ears. "We initially got New Era direct from the US," he says. "When the UK arm started there were a few teething problems and distribution was too wide. But now the brand has got it right and the distribution is more focused."

Focus is certainly an issue, with some UK retailers saying New Era's target demographic is shifting. Ismael Khan, owner of Global Sports in Shepherd's Bush, west London, was another early adopter of the brand. He has watched New Era's UK presence swell and says the customer profile has changed.

"It used to be the 18- to 30-year-olds that wore the brand, but now there is more of a 14- to 24-year-old feel to it," says Khan. "New Era is important for the kids. There's not as much money on the streets these days and that affects the way people shop. Kids can get an outfit from Primark, but if they wear it with decent kicks and a New Era cap, it ups their style ante."

The brand is planning to crank up its own style virtues with EK, a range that will target fashion independents. Ellis says: "We looked at the likes of Diesel and G-Star and asked what their headwear offers are like. Frankly, they're not great. They simply stick a logo on and that justifies a £20 price tag. Fair play to them - they seem to do well out of it.

"But the EK range will offer a variety of styles, including trilbies, fedoras and flat caps. They will have a different ethos from the baseball caps and will be a bit more sober. We know accessories have to match peoples' wardrobes, so the range won't be over the top in terms of design."

Lee says the brand's business model enables New Era to both lead and follow trends. "We have so many viewpoints. As well as our own UK and US design teams, we work with branded and high street designers including Topman and Burton. It helps us stay on top of trends."

Its roots will always lie in the US. But by adding its own twist, New Era's European business hopes to broaden the brand's appeal and produce product that will be more palatable to consumers in the UK and beyond.

30 million: number of New Era caps made each year

£176m: global turnover last year

10%: amount of turnover generated by the European business, equating to £18.1m

222: licences held with sports teams to make their caps

3,000: embroidery machines running 24 hours a day at the plant in Derby, New York

2.2m: yards of fabric used each year to make caps in the US alone

45%: the amount of production based in the US; the other 55% is in the Far East

£500: the cost of a snakeskin 59Fifty

Over 300: number of employees at the Derby plant in New York, with a further 260 in Buffalo

25 to 30: number of stores planned globally in the next five years

200: number of independent retail accounts in the UK

1,100sq ft: size of the London flagship

NEW ERA'S INTERNATIONAL STRATEGY

Chris Koch is chief executive and joint owner of New Era, which was founded by his great grandfather Ehrhardt Koch in 1920. "New Era's roots remain in US sport," he explains. "In the future, we will continue to leverage our sports legacy into other lifestyle opportunities as we have done in urban fashion.

"Our fan business is very mature but is still growing. Beyond that we are relevant in the urban segment, and our action sports profile has grown through partnerships with brands such as Quiksilver, DC and Burton.

"We will continue our collaboration and licensing efforts with the 'best in class' brands in all market segments, including sport and fashion. Our plan is to double the size of the company over the next five years.

"This will mean developing new strategic channels of distribution, managing the ones we are in and opening additional retail flagship stores around the world."

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