PETER Walcott has worked for more than 40 years in the hat trade but when COVID emerged it literally changed his head space.
Until March, 2020, Rigon Headwear, the company he runs with wife Tina, alongside its sub-brands, had exclusively imported hats, made to their specifications.
"Then we had a few weeks locked up and everyone was wondering, like we were, where do we go from here?" the 63-year-old Central Coast businessman says. "And suddenly I thought, well, we are too reliant on importing, maybe we can get back into manufacturing."
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A licensee of the Cancer Council of Australia, Rigon had contacts in China and the Philippines, where in the 90s it had trained manufacturers to make its headwear. Mr Walcott did some research before he shipped new machinery from China to his West Gosford factory in September, 2020.
It took eight months to train up staff and by September, 2021, Mr Walcott had shifted Rigon's production onshore. Around then he also launched Oogee, an "iconic Australian" range inspired by his love of Westerns and The Man From Snowy River. Oogee uses a resistant, non-crumpling material called Flexibraid® and has UPF50+ sun protection.
It took a few years for Mr Walcott to design and test the material, a mixture of threads that are woven into a single braid. The material is still being made offshore but he hopes to also manufacture it in Australia.
Before COVID, Rigon had 15 staff. Now, at peak periods, it employs 40. Last financial year its turnover was around $8 million with production of 300,000 hats.
Raised beach-side in Sydney, Mr Walcott fell into the hat trade with a job at Arthur Haplin Agencies, thanks to his father Richard, who worked for a company which imported haberdashery to supply to the garment industry.
"At the age of 19 I found I had a knack for sales and design and business. came up with different way to sell to buyers and coming up with design ideas from traditional ideas for hats. I was a young person coming in to an older industry."
In 1998, Mr Walcott and his father founded Rigon Headwear and began importing predominantly handwoven straw hats and fabric "cut and sew' hats, made offshore.
"In the late 80s things got difficult for manufacturing in Australia - they had tariffs on bringing in materials to make a hat but there was no tariff on importing a hat, it was hard to compete," he recalls.
"Generally, a lot of people who imported didn't come from a hat background and would just go overseas and take what they wanted from the shelf, which made it good for me because we produced a better style and better materials."
Mr Walcott bought his West Gosford hub when he moved his young family to the Central Coast in 2005.
The company has progressively outgrown its quarters and recently launched its online store. Its hats are stocked in Horseland stores across Australia and Mr Walcott's designs are sought after.
He was, he says, the first person to invent a drawstring in a hat, and his new "comfy fit" design effectively elasticises the hat so it doesn't fly off in wind.
"My designs are sold worldwide under different brands because when I helped set up these factories in China and Philippines I was approached by different people in different countries who loved them, so we are in the USA, Europe and New Zealand under different brands," he says.
"There are now younger milliners who cater for the race industry, weddings and so on but when it came to sun hats there wasn't much interest there, so I thought it was an interesting market to get into."
Describing himself as a headwear designer rather than milliner, his focus and passion remain on all things headwear.
"I am only 63 and I still have a passion for running the business and ideas and until that wanes I am happy to do it for quite some time," he says.
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