Jacquart Fabric Products has come a long way since its founder began making bank deposit bags in the basement of his Ironwood home.
Its portfolio of products has grown over the decades to include a variety of custom cut-and-sew products, including upholstery, boat covers, truck tarp, orthopedic pillows and even pet products.
The company has remained family owned and headquartered in Ironwood, a small city in the far western Upper Peninsula. Although well-known and respected for its quality work, Jacquart Fabric Products long operated below the public radar.
Until earlier this century. In 2001, Jacquart Fabric Products purchased the design rights to a well-known, one-of-a-kind wool cap: Stormy Kromer.
Since then, Stormy Kromer hats, apparel and other items have become a huge part of the business at Jacquart Fabric Products, and the brand has become as synonymous with the U.P. as pasties and Iverson’s snowshoes.
"The Upper Peninsula has so many iconic imagines, from the Bridge to Miners Castle. But it is also home to some iconic businesses, none more so than Stormy Kromer," says Marty Fittante, CEO of Invest UP, the lead regional economic organization for the Upper Peninsula.
The hats had long been worn and beloved by Ironwood residents, and by railroad workers and others across the state line in Wisconsin. Jacquart Fabric Products, however, would take the unusual hat to new popularity and sales levels.
Gina Jacquart Thorsen
"In certain circles, the hat was iconic well before us,” recalls Gina Jacquart Thorsen, CEO of Jacquart Fabric Products and granddaughter of the founder.
"Many of our favorite stories about that hat and its connection with people predate our ownership. An older gentleman here in Ironwood who has since passed away attributed his red Kromer cap as being the reason he met his future wife."
While Stormy Kromer traces its beginnings to Wisconsin, Jacquart Fabric Products roots have long been planted in Ironwood, where members of the family first arrived in the early 1880s. The town was settled in 1885 after iron ore was found in the area in the 1870s. Ironwood sits on the Gogebic Iron Range, an area of iron ore deposits in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Robert R. Jacquart began sewing to pass “down” time as an around-the-clock fireman for Ironwood. In 1958, he began making bank deposit bags in his basement. A few years later, as his sewing business grew, he moved to his father’s vacant grocery store in town, hired one employee and continued his full-time job.
A few years later, Jacquart brought in his son Bob, who became manager and eventually owner of the company. He changed the name to Jacquart Fabric Products. For the next decade, Jacquart Fabric Products remained a small cut-and-sew operation, producing custom boat covers, truck tarps and custom upholstery.
Big changes came in the 1980s. Jacquart pursued a customer's request to make orthopedic pillows and supports for a physical therapy supply catalog. That transitioned the company from a small custom cut-and-sew operation to a more formal production shop.
During that decade, Jacquart Fabric Products added fleece hats, gun cases and machine covers to its portfolio. More expansion came when the company was contracted to create private-label pet beds for a growing catalog business.
Those opportunities further transformed the company, which had been operating out of leased and owned space at various locations in Ironwood.
“This was natural growth until I had four other locations and one day I called Gina’s mom and said, ‘This is killing me. I feel we have two choices: One for me to go back and make a living making boat covers on my own, or two, to take a large leap into the industrial park.’ I guess the rest is history,” Bob Jacquart recalls.
In 1994, the growing company moved to its current location, initially building a 17,000-square-foot facility to handle all of its operations.
Even bigger changes were ahead.
When Bob Jacquart learned a Wisconsin manufacturer was discontinuing the production of Stormy Kromer hats, he jumped at the opportunity to purchase the design rights, surprising the owner. Although popular among older men and others in the region, sales of the hat had been slipping, amounting to less than 4,000 hats a year.
"It was pretty beloved already here and that's why it made sense to bring it (to Ironwood)," Thorsen says. "The previous owner actually said, 'The problem with this hat is the entire customer base is within 60 miles of Ironwood.'"
Thorsen, who succeeded her father as the company's CEO last summer, says that although the cap had gained some fame over the years -- showing up on the heads of actors in movies and television -- most of the customer base was in the U.P.
The Stormy Kromer hat was initially used by railroad workers as a way to find and connect with one another. The cap was known as the six-pointer, because of the way the six panels come together at the top.
The hat is named after George “Stormy” Kromer, a semi-professional baseball player and railroad engineer who gained his nickname because of his temperament. He kept losing his hat on the train and asked his wife, Ida, to sew ear bands on his cap to keep his ears warm and on the hat on his head. Her handiwork worked.
Jacquart believed in the brand and saw its potential. He moved manufacturing operations from Wisconsin to Ironwood. He immediately reenergized the brand, adding new hat colors and growing the number of dealers from 18 to 900.
New product lines were created. In 2010, a women’s line of apparel and hats was introduced, including the flower petal pusher, which remains one of the company’s best-selling products. Marketing efforts also were bolstered and that hat has been captured on the likes of Bill Murray and Jeff Daniels.
Today, Jacquart Fabric Products produces more than 100,000 Stormy Kromer hats a year, and the original remains the best seller.
“There’s something about the hat that is more than a hat,” Thorsen says. “I think it says something about tradition. It reminds people of their grandfather wearing one. I think it’s become a symbol of family connection. We are selling values of hard work and loyalty … it creates a level of emotion. It’s cool as a company to be a steward of that.”
It's likely the famous red-and-black plaid woold cap would have disappeared without the intervention of Bob Jacquart and his company.
"Through hardwood, passion and vision, Bob, Gina and the team at Jaquart Fabric Products created a brand that really embodies the U.P. – unique, striking, authentic, resilient, and done right," notes InvestUP's Fittante.
Stormy Kromer brand accounts for about 80 percent of Jacquart Fabric Products' total business, with contract manufacturing filling in the remaining portion. The company is now also known as the home of Stormy Kromer.
The company occupies more than 90,000 square feet of manufacturing space at its campus a few miles from downtown Ironwood and employs 100 workers, many of them who have accrued 20-plus years of service. Its Stormy Kromer products are available at retailers across the country, including REI and Moosejaw.
A few thousand people visit its headquarters each year, touring the facility and buying Stormy Kromer hats, apparel, and gifts.
"Stormy Kromer is an icon. When people come to Ironwood, they know it's here and have to go on a tour," says Ironwood Mayor Kim Corcoran. "It's one more thing that brings people into the community. They go to Kromer's, see waterfalls, and have a pasty."
She calls the company a solid pillar of the community, noting family members are active with boards, volunteering and donating resources. The city pays homage to Stormy Kromer every October with Plaidurday, which is actually a global event to celebrate the world's favorite pattern but especially resonates in Ironwood.
Jacquart Fabric Products has worked with other well-known brands such as BOSS Snowplow and Rainbow Play Systems Inc.
More recently, the company partnered with Snowtrekker Tents of Viroqua, Wisconsin, to produce a portable sauna tent. Jacquart has been working with Snowtrekker Tents for more than 15 years, as a behind-the-scenes manufacturer of their best-in-class winter camping tents. The portable sauna tents presented the opportunity for a “true collaboration,” Thorsen says.
“Sauna culture runs deep in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Instead of merely manufacturing for them, we worked extensively with them throughout the development process,” she says.
The company, she adds, is always on the lookout for collaborations and product extensions that make sense to its brand and to its customers – as long as the products fit with Jacquart Fabric Products' long tradition of quality.
“While our main focus is and will remain caps, apparel and accessories, when opportunities arise to partner with other brands who have the expertise to create something new and innovative, we will absolutely do it.”