I’ve loved hats since I was a kid…all kinds of hats, both the regular (baseball, newsboy), and, well, irregular (fireman’s helmet, chef’s toque, and Native American headdress to name but a few). To this very day I still own a diverse collection, including a Captain’s hat.
This is noteworthy, as my only experience on a sailing ship was in college, not spent navigating at the wheel, tying elaborate knots or trimming the jib, but instead depositing that day’s lunch—and a ham and cheese sandwich I had eaten in 1974—into the depths of Lake Erie. But I love my nautical cap, largely because as a kid I also loved the variety show hosted by 70s pop stars Captain and Tennille, and the hat was Daryl Dragon’s—The Captain—trademark.
Reading thus far, you may be think that COVID has prevented me from sharing these random, seemingly free-associated musings with my therapist, and that’s why I’m blathering about it here. While that may or not be the case (he wasn’t crazy about my appointments even before the pandemic), I’m sharing this for context…context and because I can talk about it here and skip the co-pay.
But that fact aside, a few months ago as I was scrolling through Instagram, an ad appeared for a Roll Up Yacht Cap. (Full Disclosure—I am a sucker for Instagram ads, and I’ve got the credit card statements to prove it.) Only this wasn’t an adjustable novelty cap like the one I already owned, but a legit number manufactured in the original factory—by hand—since the 1950s.
As I tapped my way to the linked site, I soon became a devotee of the company offering not only that hat, but a slew of others as well as other high quality, nautically-inspired pieces from the storied brand Quaker Marine Supply. They’ve weathered the stormy seas of retail since 1949, starting as a supplier to working seamen and emerging today as a full-fledged menswear brand that even we landlubbers can appreciate.
With my new yachting cap serving as gateway drug, I’m now happily addicted and was fortunate enough to get their complete story from my dealer, Ethan Lauer, QMS’s Director of Sales and Marketing.
Heddels (John Bobey): Quaker Marine Supply has had a long journey to your newish home in Brooklyn, New York—can you share a bit about the origin and evolution of the brand?
Quaker Marine Supply-Ethan Lauer: Quaker Marine founded in 1949 by a Coast Guard veteran named Joe Kadison. He began by selling marine clothing, hardware, and equipment to local seamen on the docks of Philadelphia. Over time, he found his niche with headwear, most notably the long-brimmed 4-panel Swordfish and Oysterman.
Over the years, Abercrombie & Fitch and L.L.Bean started carrying select QMS hats, expanding the brand’s reach and developing a fandom among certain nautical aficionados. In 2003, a former L.L. Bean merchant named Ned Kitchel bought the company and moved the headquarters up to Portland, Maine, where for several years he continued to make the iconic caps until in the midst of a factory fire and economic downturn in 2011, they were forced to shut down.
In 2012, Kevin McLaughlin, a longtime admirer of the brand, acquired QMS with the idea of reimagining it as a lifestyle label. At the end of 2018 we officially relaunched with a small initial collection, reintroducing the Swordfish, Oysterman, and other legacy QMS hat styles, with a collection of sportswear and accessories that pay homage to East Coast nautical the spirit of the brand.
H: I was initially drawn to your company because if your unique collection of caps, and that was Quaker’s exclusive focus for a bit—hats. What is it about your approach to headwear that’s so essential to QMS?
QMS: Joe Kadison, the founder, was a fanatic about caps. The long-billed 4-panel Oysterman with its vinyl bill is an early example of true technical sportswear. The crown is low so that the cap doesn’t easily blow off your head, and the vinyl bill repels water from rain and sea spray so your face doesn’t get soaked. Back when Abercrombie & Fitch was a true outfitter, they carried the Oysterman with their other refined, yet functional offerings.
Hemingway actually bought his at the A&F store in New York. As distribution picked up, Kadison added some other seemingly simple designs like the Roll Up Yacht Cap and the Nairobi that maintained the nuanced edge that just feels right. I spoke to a customer the other day who has dozens and dozens of QMS caps from throughout the years–he won’t buy another brand.
We’ve stayed as true as we can to the early models by continuing to make the caps in the USA in the original factory. We of course like to take some liberties to keep pushing the brand forward, introducing new fabrics like recycled Dacron sailcloth for our collaboration with Sea Bags, or wool and suede as we head towards fall.
H: You make a couple of long bill caps, a style most associated with Ernest Hemingway. I love the look and the simple functionality of the design, but is it a tough sell for the younger demo that might not make that association with Papa?
QMS: We’ve made peace with that. We realize that long bill silhouette is somewhat of an acquired taste. But when you feel the character and heritage of the Oysterman & Swordfish, you begin to develop an affinity for the look and embrace the distinctiveness. So we’re certainly not pandering to the younger crowd too heavily, but I think there’s a certain young customer who appreciates that.
With all the trends and noise in the industry these days, I think some of folks find it refreshing to find a brand with some real authenticity, offering high quality, nuanced products that have stood the test of time and won’t simply fade out of fashion next season. I guess in a way, Hemingway makes a lot of sense as a face of QMS. His novels might not be the newest, most salacious work of the moment, but they are all classics with a certain intrigue that each generation finds themselves returning to again and again.
H: As you know Ethan, my favorite of everything QMS makes is The Big Hat. It’s not a cowboy hat, it’s not a panama, it’s not…normal by any stretch of the imagination, and that’s exactly what I love about it. To me, it’s reminiscent of the one wore by Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor…a pure expression of unapologetic, extravagant leisure. What’s is it that you love about it?
QMS: I think you nailed it. It’s just the right amount of irreverent and practical. Plus, lately, the 6” brim helps with social distancing.
H: I’m always intrigued by the models that a brand chooses to show their stuff—your main guy is a more…mature representative than many brands in your lifestyle space? Any specific reason(s) for that? (I love it by the way.)
QMS: We make QMS for real people. It just doesn’t feel right to us to use your standard chiseled, young male model type. Instead we wanted to show someone that felt more genuine and inclusive of all ages and types. Plus, he has an old-man-and-the-sea look going for him, which I think has a certain appeal to the nautical crowd. It also takes someone with a bit of confidence to effectively don the Oysterman, and he does it so well. He’ll be back again for our Fall 2020 campaign so stay tuned.
In this same spirit of inclusivity, we do vary the models somewhat to showcase other sides of the brand. For example Kevin, the current QMS owner, actually shot the spring goods on his kids while they were quarantined in Boca Grande, Florida. It was more out of necessity than anything, but I do think it helped show another, multi-generational story for the brand. Luckily they happened to be stuck in a particularly charming coastal town.
H: It feels like you’re looking to take QMS from what started essentially as an outfitter for those who worked on the water to a full-blown lifestyle brand akin to the nautical shades of vintage J. Crew, Tommy, and Polo. That’s a tall order, especially in today’s economic climate. What’s your thinking…your plan for appealing to a broader section of the market?
QMS: To be quite honest, we have modest expectations for the brand. Our nautical, heritage niche speaks to a certain audience which is plenty big for our taste. It’s fine for us to cap the scale and volume at a certain level, as long as we are staying true to the original spirit of the brand. We don’t aspire to be on the first floor at Bloomingdales, but do want to reach the enthusiasts with whom Quaker Marine will resonate and build a base of customers who are excited to support us as an independent brand.
H: Can you take me through the process for adding a new piece to your collection…from initial thoughts to being up on the site for sale?
QMS: Kevin is a retail veteran and has a long history with his suppliers and support team, working with certain folks for over 40 years. This allows us to keep the QMS team relatively small and nimble, while still being able to execute an idea quickly, and at a high level. Kevin is at the helm of the design process and is very thoughtful when it comes to our assortment. He has a clear vision of the brand’s sensibility informed by his decades in the industry, and knows exactly how to take a classic like a rollneck sweater and make it a distinct QMS piece that fits effortlessly into our world.
H: This summer you added some pretty bold prints to your line up, the likes of which a crusty waterman from QMS’s early days wouldn’t have dared show above deck, if at all—is this a sign of a bolder sensibility to come?
QMS: We see the Quaker guy as having a discerning taste that can go from utilitarian workwear to little bit of after-hours fun and unabashed leisure. There’s also a bit of levity and reluctance to take oneself too seriously. With our bold prints for this spring specifically, it started with the fabrics. Kevin came across these almost over-the-top designs on some fabrics that aren’t typically used in sportswear, but got the idea to do our take on a “fuck you” pant, the staple of any sartorially-minded ivy-style enthusiast. QMS’s east coast roots have always played in the ivy style world and we thought this was a slightly irreverent, tongue-in-cheek way to embrace that.
H: What’s one piece QMS will always offer, and what’s one thing you’ve been thinking about offering but wonder of your clientele will “accept” it?
QMS: For as long as we’re around, we will be making the Swordfish and Oysterman without question. The entire ethos and heritage of Quaker Marine is best summed up in those caps.The toughest offering for us is basics honestly. We often ask ourselves, do we really need to cover all the categories? It of course helps when we’re building out a well-rounded collection, but sometimes the nuanced details can be lost, especially when nearly all of our business will be done online for the foreseeable future. That said, when our customers give our basic styles a try, they’re usually back for more shortly after.
H: Let’s talk scents—I grew up with a father and uncles who wore the Holy Trinity of classic men’s fragrances…English Leather, Old Spice, and Canoe…good old fashioned, reliable drug store offerings. You’ve released two new scents that, to me, strike a similar olfactory chord, wonderfully, subtly masculine—St. John’s Bay Rum Aftershave and West Indian Lime Cologne. Tell me about them…
QMS: St. Johns Bay Rum has been around since 1947, two years before QMS got its start. The company was founded by a navy veteran names John Webb, who was stationed in St. Thomas during WWII. Webb was intrigued by the local Bay Rum scents of the islands and decided to develop his own to start selling back in the states.
Both St Johns and QMS spawned from an era of post-war optimism and distinctly American sensibility that we appreciate. When Rhys Moore, the current CEO, reached out to see if we were interested in carrying some of their scents, it seemed like a natural storytelling fit. Plus, I’ve heard from a few customers who distinctly remember their father wearing the bay rum cologne along with their Quaker Marine hat.
H: After a strong return to the marketplace in 2018 and the brand certainly having found its sea legs, where do you hope to go from here?
QMS: Like I said before, we don’t have herculean ambitions. Instead, we’d rather keep Quaker as a bit of a jewel that people are excited to discover. To do that, we’re focused on maintaining the integrity of the brand above all else and embracing a certain amount of the mystique that comes from being under the radar.
H: If anyone out there is thinking of reviving a storied brand, what some advice you can offer?
QMS: Look for real integrity in the story. Sometimes a brand fades away for a reason. To this day, Quaker Marine has a dedicated fan base because of its decades-long commitment to its customer and quality. Plus having distinct hero products like the Swordfish and Oysterman certainly helps.
H: Has it been worth all the hard work?
QMS: It’s not work honestly, we’re having fun. I know people say that, but I really do mean it. Yes, being small and scrappy can have its challenges and stress, but there’s a certain underlying sense that we’re working to preserve something larger than us. And after 70 years, we’ve really only just begun.
While so many brands have lost all touch with their origins—Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic being perhaps the most obvious examples—it’s restorative to see a true original like Quaker Marine Supply be able to evolve while retaining every bit of their soul.
Their headwear is still built to remain fit for active duty, and while much of their clothing is undeniably designed as “fashion,” you can still imagine their founder Joe Kadison and his cronies donning the pieces for a night of R&R while in port. (OK, maybe not the printed 5-pockets, but everything else.) Each hat is expertly sewn and proudly bears a Made in the U.S.A. label. The clothing pieces I received were made overseas in China, but I’m told QMS follows strict guidelines insuring the pieces are made with the same attention to detail as the hats, and under the most humane conditions possible.
Both the Terry Polo in White ($88) and Long Sleeve Red/Navy Polo were summer staples (both in a contemporary fit XL), but since receiving them I have simply gotten too pandemic chubby to wear them, especially in photos–neither my ego nor the garments would be served by showing me in them. But I’m working on it, and look forward to more lazy afternoons swaddled in these come early 2021.
However, I can still get away with wearing the QMS piece that seems to have been made with me in mind–the Loafer Jacket in Gray Herringbone Wool ($285). I reach for it whenever leaving the house, as it adds boho charm to whatever else I have on, and the generous pockets have plenty of room for masks and hand sanitizer, two items I so look forward to striking from my EDC.
And as they are a bonafide menswear brand, QMS’s offerings will change seasonally, so if you don’t see these pieces on their site there will surely be others equally as nice. But the hats are a constant, so if you find yourself in need (or want) of a new lid, these QMS styles have no equal, and you deserve them.
With the passage of time, we often learn that certain things in our youth were not as they seemed. For instance, in Toni Tennille’s memoir, she revealed that she and the Captain were never really in love, Muskrat or otherwise.
Fortunately, the bond between me and hats is real, and shall stand the test of time. Let’s hope the same can be said for Quaker Marine Supply—even though they’ve been around for over 70 years, I agree with QMS’s Ethan Lauer that they’re really just getting started.