BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Aviate brand came out of nowhere, even to its founder.
“Really, there was not much magic behind it,” owner Ben Lancaster said. “I just had the idea to put BHM on hats.”
You can’t miss the hats around Birmingham, especially among the 20-something crowd: a soft ballcap with BHM, the three-letter code for Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, across the front. You’ll see them at pools, even at bars where baseball caps aren’t common attire. These aren’t cheap hats – they’ll run you $35 each – but they’re cool.
They’ve become so cool, in fact, that it’s difficult for even the owners to quantify their growth.
A quick browse through Aviate’s website shows that many styles of their hats are sold out. The team gets a lot of complaints about that, Lancaster said, but they’re still figuring a lot of it out. It’s grown far, faster than they anticipated; they only recently produced enough hats that they were able to fulfill all their pre-orders. Aviate had to stop offering pre-ordering after orders greatly outpaced their production schedule.
Four or five years ago, then Birmingham resident CJ Adams had the idea to put airport codes on hats. So he had some samples made, and after so many people asked to buy them from him – even offering to buy them off of him at bars – he decided to have a small batch of 100 samples made in early 2015. Those sold within two days.
Lancaster, now 31, and Adams went into business together around March and ordered their first 2,000 units. Adams left the company that summer.
Lancaster was, at the time, working the family business managing small community newspapers in places like Murray, Kentucky and Branson, Missouri. By August, he quit that job, which he’d held for eight years, because he didn’t have enough time to do both.
“Damn, it picked up so fast,” he said.
A year and a half later, the company has grown to three additional employees, hats in more than 400 retail locations, and designs for more than 50 cities, from here in Birmingham all the way to Honolulu. By the end of October, Lancaster forecasts he’ll have about 100 cities. They’ve moved from Lancaster’s basement to a 400-square-foot office space to a 1,400-square-foot space in the heart of Homewood. They’ve started using a distributor out of Nashville to handle the logistics and distribution.
Lancaster almost always picks his cities based on where he has connections – he never makes a hat for a city without already having at least one retailer who will sell the hats. But he got so many requests on social media and elsewhere from consumers in Portland that Aviate made a PDX hat. How did people in Portland find his hats? He doesn’t know, he can’t explain it.
It won’t just be airport codes on hats forever. They’ve got some T-shirts of the same concept, and there’s a lot more coming, Lancaster said.
“Airport codes on hats and shirts will always be our bread and butter, but we’re positioning ourselves to be a premium travel brand, from luggage to anything travel related you can think of; electronics, obviously other apparel,” Lancaster said. “It’s quickly and violently changing to blow this thing up.”
So what is it exactly about such a simple concept that has grown so monstrous? Lancaster estimates that in the most recent month long period Aviate has probably ordered about 100,000 units of merchandise.
It’s hard to pinpoint. The hats promote community, and Lancaster thinks that has something to do with it – and it probably helped the brand to be born in Birmingham.
“Birmingham is just resurrecting itself, and people were looking for avenues to help latch themselves onto Birmingham, and we were one of the local brands that people caught onto.” Lancaster said. “If we were based in Atlanta, I don’t know that it would have taken off like it had.”