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AKUBRA still part of bush dress code

KEEP YOUR HAT ON: The popularity and sales of Akubra haven’t waned during this drought.
KEEP YOUR HAT ON: The popularity and sales of Akubra haven’t waned during this drought. Adrian Brown

AS MANUFACTURERS abandon Australia in a bid to reduce costs, one of the world's last hat makers is determined to retain its place in our not-so-sunburnt country.

Akubra has been weathering the economic fluctuations here for 130 years, first under the close scrutiny of English innovator Benjamin Dunkerley and from 1904, under the tutelage of the Keir family, which retains the business today.

While there has been significant development in sales and marketing, the production processes for rabbit-fur felt hats mirrors the methods used a century ago.

We made about 250 hats especially for the Baz Luhrmann movie, Australia, and annually we sell about 140,000.

For Akubra director Roy Wilkinson, that translates to an operation heavily reliant on skilled tradies - their plant at Kempsey employs 90 people - and a major portion of the work is done by hand.

"I would never say 'never' but at the moment we are committed to manufacturing hats here," he said.

But as an accountant by trade, he knows the importance of economics and he says the quality and reputation of Akubra remains integral to business success.

In the past nine months, despite the drought (which historically has impacted on sales), the headwear specialist has recorded a 15% increase in business, much of it generated by Asian interest.

"Two to three years ago, 10% of our hats went overseas, now it's 15% and our biggest buyers are China and Tibet," Mr Wilkinson said.

But while our close neighbours might be buying Akubra hats, they are opting for "country" styles as opposed to the western hats that dominated the paddocks and saleyards of rural Australia.

He said our Chinese and Tibetan buyers tended to favour hats made from barramundi skin, or farmed crocodile.

The Cattleman still dominates sales on the domestic scene, where it has been the most popular style for close to 30 years.

"The colours might change, but the Cattleman still remains our biggest seller and I think that is because it suits 90% of the population," Mr Wilkinson said.

Second in the fashion stakes is The Riverina, which is a slightly more recent hat with a wider brim.

"I think people in rural Australia have worn Akubras for so long, it has become part of their unofficial uniform but it is very much about sun protection," he said.

Domestically about 140,000 hats are sold each year, with the majority of transactions in Queensland.

Akubra also has a long-standing government contract to supply 12,000 slouch hats - appropriately called The Military - for the Department of Defence annually.

Yet it is not all paddock wear and uniform production - there is a lighter side to the hat-making enterprise.

The company's skills as one of the last 20 traditional hat-makers in the world means it also get orders for movies like Baz Luhrmann's Australia.

"I think we made about 250 hats for Australia the movie," Mr Wilkinson said.

"Many of those hats were unique to the time period and we enjoyed being involved and are always happy to work with the costume designers."

They did the same thing with the movie The Great Gatsby, although that production only involved "20 to 50" hats.

All the hats are still made from rabbit fur and considering you need on average 12-14 skins to create one western-style hat, it's no surprise the operation buys in three million rabbit skins a year.

Today 60% of these skins are imported, with Australia able to supply just 40% from farmed operations in Victoria and New South Wales.

Style icons

  •  When golfer Greg Norman was wearing his Akubra - The Great White Shark - on tour, orders exceeded supply so frequently, retailers were put on quotas.
  •  Famous Akubra owners - Pharrell Williams, Bill Clinton, Prince Charles, Lee Kernaghan and, of course, Bob Katter who wears The Arena.

Topics:  hats