A small custom sewing company in the U.P. saved a down-home clothing icon, and then somehow made it retro-cool enough for movie stars and Brooklynites. This is the story of Stormy Kromer.
This story is featured in the November 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
Autumn is here, and the days are getting shorter. The rising sun shimmers on frost in the yard, northern breezes nip our ears, and wood smoke scents the air. Stormy Kromer season has arrived.
The Stormy Kromer, a hat first named, simply enough, after the man who invented it. Now the name has become such a part of the hat, what else could we even call it? “Stormy Kromer” will do, as it has for the last century, a time during which the Stormy Kromer story has taken on a tone not unlike a Paul Bunyon legend.
In the late 1800s, George “Stormy” Kromer played semi-pro baseball with a passion. If Stormy knew of a way to make something better, he would do it. Like making his baseball team stare into the sun to practice watching for high flying balls and making them stand in moving train cars without hanging on to the sides to improve their balance.
During his baseball years, Stormy met a woman named Ida and fell in love with her. He asked her father three times if he could marry her, but Ida’s dad said Stormy had to get a “real job” first. What was a love-struck man to do? Stormy started working on the railroad.
Then came another problem: Stormy’s baseball cap would always blow off his head when he looked out the window on moving trains. Now Stormy didn’t get his nickname from his favorite kind of weather. He had a temper, and he had a last-straw moment one day when he lost his cap for the umpteenth time. So he asked his precious Ida to sew an ear band onto yet another baseball cap, allowing him to secure it in those blowing conditions. That original Stormy Kromer was sewn in 1903 by Ida, herself, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When the other fellas on the crew saw George’s stay-put hat, they all wanted one too.
Not only did these hats flaunt the earflaps, the crown was designed with six panels instead of four. When the cap gained popularity in the heyday of the railroad, traveling laborers would pop their heads into an establishment of an unfamiliar town and ask, “Any six-pointers in here?” If they heard a ‘yes!’ they would saunter on in, and enjoy some camaraderie for the evening.
By 1945, what started as a little home stitching operation had moved to several other locations (always bigger) to keep up with the demand of the cap. At that time, Stormy Kromer Mercantile employed around 30 workers.
Twenty years later, Richard Grossman took over the company when Stormy could no longer handle the reins for health reasons. Then production of the hat in Milwaukee began to decline as the railway industry dwindled, and eventually, production of the Stormy Kromer sputtered to a stop. More on that in a moment.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and meet Bob Jacquart, CEO of Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood, Michigan. His dad started the company in 1958, and Bob joined the family business in the ’70s. A pillar of the Jacquart business was making boat covers. “Bob-the-boat-cover-guy,” as he was known then, got his start doing just that—and reupholstering couches.
From what I can gather from Bob, he is a problem solver. Just by watching him I can see the storm going on in his mind as he looks to find the next solution, or make a new discovery. Kind of like Mr. Kromer himself.
Bob pulls me into his of office, “Hey, you got to see this,” he beams as he points to a framed black and white picture hanging on the wall. “Those are my girls,” he nods at two big smiles fringed by long, braided pigtails. They sit at a card table waiting for customers as little Gina, now the president of Stormy Kromer, folds her arms over a large cash register. “They’ve been doing this all their lives,” he smiles, unable to hide his pride.
The next thing Bob shares is how Jacquart Fabric Products became the sole manufacturer of the Stormy Kromer hat. “I was having coffee with Mark from Hobby Wheel across the street here.” He points toward Highway 2. “He said he couldn’t order any more hats because they stopped making them.”
Picture Bob’s reaction at that moment. He stares into his coffee cup, wondering how this is possible. “But they make the hat my grandfather is wearing. Heck, the hat I’m wearing!” He stews. Then he looks up at Mark. “Get me the number. I’ll buy the damn company!”
And that’s pretty much what Bob did. He actually purchased the sole rights to manufacture and sell the Stormy Kromer product line. The year was 2001. “We can sew anything,” Bob says. Why not a legendary hat?
I scan the hallway decorated with Stormy Kromer publicity—news articles about the history, famous people wearing the hat, recreational clubs formed around the hat and photos of generations of hat-wearers like railroad workers, Yoopers and even the cool kids. Clearly, somebody had to keep making the hat.
The Stormy Kromer cap is still made with six panels, functionality and style in mind. And Gina is about to show us how the process works.
I am handed a pair of safety goggles to wear in the work areas. Gina sports her personal pair framed in carnation pink. Jacketless, I follow her through the fresh falling snow to the factory building across the driveway. Her boots clip-clop across the pavement. As she opens the factory door, I am hit with a wall of warm air.
Machines of all sizes and shapes whir and buzz in the space around us. A lift cart warns beep, beep, beep as it backs up behind us. “Hey, Scott,” Gina greets the driver.
“Do you know everyone’s name here?” I ask her.
“I try,” she says. Throughout the 80,000 square feet of the facility, she has about 120 names to remember.
We watch as three layers of red and black plaid fabric are cut at once on the computerized cutting machine. The beast is loud, 12 feet wide, and even longer. Gina shouts to me, “You can see the waste of the cuts is minimal. It’s very efficient.” Judging by the number of plaid ear bands and triangular panels the man at the output end pulls up, I’d have to agree.
The panels are brought over to Jodi, who sews the famous six panels together in less than a minute. Three panels on one side, three on the other, then she sews them all together to make the crown. Gina leans over to me, “She has to be really precise with her seams because each hat is sized.”
Next we watch silver fingernails flash under the sewing machine’s light as the four-panel liner gets sewn together at another fast pace. After that, Jan sews quarter moons of black fabric onto the black and red plaid dome. One machine back, Diane sews the black band on the inside and attaches the outside ear band. She cuts each string with a snip, snip.
We’ll be back,” Gina looks at Diane. “Embroidery is ready for us.”
We walk past dozens of cones spun with shiny thread in a plethora of colors on our way to the embroidery department. Josie stands in front of six machines. Each one with four ear bands ready to get branded with the Stormy Kromer signature in each hoop.
Josie smiles at us as if to say, “Are you ready for this?” She pushes the button, and all the machines whir in unison. Soon we hear a pause, a thread cut, and the whirring resumes. “That was just crossing the ‘t,’ I think,” Gina nods.
Back in the sewing machine section, Penny adheres the bottom edges with a machine that folds the strip in half lengthwise as it sews.
“Each machine has attachments to maximize each step,” Gina tells me.
Irene jumps back a chair and attaches the ear band to the hat. Next she threads the tie through the holes in the ends. Her red ponytail sits high on her head, and the fluorescent lights accentuate just a few strands of silver. She also does the “closing” by snipping off any loose threads and making sure all the edges are tucked in.
Along the way, each worker checks her piece before packing her box of finished products and sending it to the next stage. “That way we can find any problems before the hat is finished,” Gina says.
And just before finishing, a real person ties the little string in the hat’s front. “Most people think we have tying machines,” Gina laughs. One hat circumference from each batch is measured for a final inspection. The hat is tagged for sale, and, voilà, another legendary hat is ready to warm another head.
Today’s Stormy Kromer product line means you don’t have to sport the signature red and black plaid wool hat. With Gina Thorsen at the helm of the Kromer division, you will find a style, color and material that makes you look and feel good. Growing from a signature cap to dozens of styles—and expanding—proves that her heart is in this.
“Business is in our blood,” she tells me as she thinks back to her childhood. She mentions how she and her sister used to deliver couches and boats with her dad. “We would get ice cream if we went to the door to meet the customer and shake their hand. Great life lessons he passed on to us.”
And the way she captures me with her sea-foam green eyes and radiant smile proves that she’s got those people skills down. Not just with her customers, but with her employees too. “We’re like a big family,” she smiles. “The people here make it a great company.” I get a sense of that family feel when I find the list of employee birthdays tacked to a corkboard.
While the kindred work ethic keeps production running smoothly, the Jacquart ambition keeps it accelerating.
Since Gina took over the Stormy Kromer division in 2009, she has helped expand the women’s hat and clothing selections greatly—fabric vests, down vests, mittens, long-sleeve Ts, ponchos, jackets. Gina is also dedicated to making the Kromer product line fill out the year by introducing hats made with a lighter material for spring and summer.
Stormy Kromer has become more than a hat. It’s a brand of outerwear that makes people look and feel good any time of year. In any part of the country. And it’s still growing.
“We’re just trying to be who we are, with the work heritage, but make it relevant for today,” Gina says. Relevant indeed. People all over the country are rocking these hats.
One national fashion trend is lending momentum to the Stormy Kromer story: the rise of the lumbersexual look—guys from Brooklyn, New York, to Portland, Oregon, looking hot in flannel shirts and beards. “We fit in there nicely,” Gina says. But she wants to be clear: the world came to Stormy Kromer, the company did not pursue the look. “We don’t chase trends,” she says. “You don’t get to be 100 years old by being too trendy.”
Besides expanding the scope and style of merchandise itself, Gina is determined to watch the number of Stormy Kromer retailers grow as well. She’s working on bringing awareness of the name to bigger cities with cooler weather from coast to coast. After all, it is Stormy Kromer season.