Australia’s climate necessitates proper protection from the fierce elements – particularly in summer – and hats have been for a long time the best way to do this, and the most appreciated brand producing them has historically been Akubra. Akubra is one of the most celebrated manufacturers of clothing in Australia, with their hats undoubtedly recognised as an icon across the entire country. Although many know that Akubra has a rich pedigree, it is often unknown what the actual origin story of Akubra actually is. For those in this boat, in this article we demonstrate the humble origins of this beloved Australian brand.
Where Akubra started
Although currently renowned for the Akubra Arena hat and Cattleman hat, Akubra came from simpler beginnings. It was in 1874 that Benjamin Dunkerley arrived in Tasmania from England, and a desire to create a hat making business followed shortly after. It was in Hobart that his technical skills as a hatter were complemented perfectly by a firm understanding of machinery and a knack for invention, so it wasn’t long after that he conceived of a machine that mechanically removed the hair tip from rabbit fur so the under-fur could be used in felt hat making, a task that otherwise was laboriously performed by hand. In the early 1900s the business was moved to Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney, where a hat making factory was set up. In 1904 Dunkerley found a partner in Stephen Keir I, who had also migrated from England. Keir brought both hat-making experience and a firm grasp of business to the business, allowing the operation to grow even further over time. Even to this day, the Keir family still operate the business.
Akubra becomes an icon
It should be noted that at this stage the business was not called Akubra – in 1911 it was known as Dunkerley Hat Mills Ltd and was run by a meagre nineteen employees and owned by seven shareholders, with Stephen Keir I being the managing director. Finally, in August, 1912, the trade name “Akubra” came to be. It was also during this time that popularity began to increase even further, requiring operations to move into larger premises in Bourke Street, Waterloo. Some of this increase in production was as a result of the need for Slouch hats during World War I for Australia’s armed forces. Unfortunately, 1925 saw the death of Dunkerley. Afterwards, ownership of the business transferred to Stephen Keir I. As with many other businesses during the Great Depression, sales declined and pay cuts were necessary – fortunately, this allowed for all of the staff to keep their jobs.
The relationship with Australia’s military grew from strength to strength, with employment figures at Akubra peaking at 500 in the 1940’s due to the World War II military contract being responsible for 80% of the hats produced. A purpose-built Akubra factory was built in Kempsey in 1972, and to this day, Akubra are still a proud Aussie brand and produce their hats in Kempsey, NSW. Their cultural fashion importance is perhaps demonstrated in the fact that they have produced two million hats for Australia’s military forces, making them so much more than a fashion icon.