The visiting American eyes off the Queensland farmer’s battered old Akubra. “I want a hat like yours,” he says to his Australian host. “But you have one,” the farmer says, gesturing at the visitor’s pristine felt hat. “No,” says the American. “I want a worn-in one like yours.” By chance, the Aussie and the American have the same head size and they resolve the situation by swapping hats. As the farmer tells his story, everyone is happy. He gets a brand new hat and the visitor gains a genuine piece of Australiana: a weather-beaten Akubra, complete with sweat stains from an outback summer, dents where the dog sat on it and the odd disfigurement from where it’s been used as a prod to move livestock through the yards.
“Well, funny you should mention that,” says Steve Keir, fourth-generation managing director of the family company that produces Akubra felt hats. “We’ve actually been discussing a pre-loved model. We haven’t got there yet but we are aware that there’s a section of the market that wants our hats to look worn in even when they are brand new.”
As Aussie icons go, the Akubra hat is up there with Vegemite, RM boots and the Southern Cross windmill. Handmade from felted rabbit fur, Akubra hats have been part of the Australian military uniform since World War I, have represented Australia at many Olympic games and, most importantly, are the hat of choice of bush people from one end of this country to the other.
The brand can trace its origins back to 1874, when Benjamin Dunkerley arrived in Tasmania from England and established a hat-making business in Hobart. In the early 1900s, the business moved to Surry Hills in Sydney and in 1904, Stephen Keir I, who had recently arrived from England, joined the company. He married the boss’s daughter in 1905 and rose through the ranks to become general manager. The trade name Akubra came into use in 1912. The business moved to larger premises, still in Sydney, and expanded with the production of slouch hats during World War I. When Benjamin died in 1925, ownership transferred to the Keir family and was subsequently passed to Stephen’s sons.
The late Steve Keir III officially joined the company at the age of 21 after studying accounting, though, in fact, he had served a long apprenticeship in the family firm, working in the factory most school holidays. Steve IV followed his dad into the business, also after studying accounting, and he and his two sisters are equal shareholders and directors of the company. Although the time-honoured process of taking “bunny to brow” (making felted rabbit-fur hats) has been considerably mechanised through the years, the company’s commitment to quality has never wavered.
For most of its century-plus history, Akubra didn’t deviate from its core business of hat making. However, at the end of last year, the company announced it was diversifying into luxury leather and canvas luggage, bags and wallets, made under license with another Australian-owned family business, DKM Blue.
“There are a lot of people out there who want to be associated with the Akubra brand but don’t wear hats,” Steve explains. “While hats will always be our flagship, it was important to generate a new revenue stream. This move is designed to make sure the Akubra brand will keep going well into the next century.”
This story was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Australian Country. Order the back issue here.
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Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass