by Katrina Hall
photography by Michael P. Bailey
To get from the University of La Verne to the Los Angeles Marathon, all one needs to do is go through La Verne’s Davis family. The Davises have something in common with both of these Southern California institutions.
The family designs and manufactures cycling caps with the L.A. Marathon logo and title, which the L.A. Marathon committee distributes to paid participants.
The family name is known, too, at ULV. The coed dormitory Brandt Hall was named after former dean of the University, Jesse Brandt, the father of mother Dorothy Davis, who serves as vice president, office manager and baby-sitter of the Davis Family hat business. Her husband, Rodney, is the son of C. Ernest Davis, who served as president of ULV from 1938-1948.
Both Dorothy and Rodney were students at La Verne; Dorothy earned a bachelor of arts in art and English, a master’s in teaching and a juris doctorate in law. Rodney earned a bachelor of arts in English, culminated by a master’s and Ph.D. in educational psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
The idea of starting a hat business was dreamed of by the couple’s three sons Muir, Carl and Eric at a family ski trip in Vermont.
“Rodney had always suggested to the kids that if they believed in something, try it out — go for it,” says Dorothy.
The dream was developed into reality when Muir, a Cal Poly, Pomona graduate, travelled to New Jersey to research how hats were made. He then became the business manager, providing the necessary marketing by initiating sales with school groups.
Eric, an alumnus of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., came back to La Verne to become the hat designer and printer. He also thought of the name of the business, suggesting “Kappit” as a term for capping the head.
Rodney Davis, who taught at the University of La Verne from the 1960s through 1976, designed and built the printing table, while his daughter Sara, a University of Chicago graduate and her husband Stephen, a Yale graduate, became the bookkeeper and financial backer. The business of hats for the Davis Family opened in April of 1983 and has been going strong ever since.
The summer of 1983, the Davis’ first hat order was from a rock group. A short time later, Eric travelled to the Rhode Island School of Design and sold a hat order of 2,000 for the Yale vs. Harvard 100th anniversary football game. “Sara and Stephen went to a Yale game and saw all these people wearing the hat,” says Dorothy.
The family was able to convert two buildings on First Street in La Verne as assembly areas for the hats. Sewing machines, which are divided into stations, occupy one of the buildings. Cap assembly starts with four sewing stations-the first sews three parts together, the second sewing machine puts on the cap bill, the third attaches the elastic, and the fourth covers the elastic. The second building captures the cloth cutting machinery, silk screening equipment and a heat processor that bakes plastasol ink used to imprint logos.
To date, the family has assembled and sold more than 300,000 hats since the start of the business. There have been many prestigious universities around the nation that have ordered hats for retail sale in their book stores. Big sales have come, too, from special orders, such as in 1984, when Carl designed the official Rose Bowl hats for the game of UCLA vs. Illinois, which UCLA won 45-9. Kappit gained the licensing agreement from the Tournament of Roses Committee and sold the hats to the official vendors.
“They were able to further their education through the Kappit business,” says Dorothy. “Working together made them realize how important they are to each other. We have a close-knit family.”
But due to the ongoing decline of the business because of the economy and the conditions of the market, the family had to look for other jobs to support themselves; nevertheless, there was still enough business to keep the Kappit door open. Business comes these days from bulk mail advertising, word of mouth and from long-time customers.
“We were not being profitable with the selling, and they [the children] needed to make their own money,” says Dorothy. “We are not losing business, but we are not making any either.”
One-by-one, the Davis children left Kappit, finding new jobs and building their own families. All four are currently married.
Eric, father of two, was the first to leave in 1993, becoming an artist for another apparel business. Today, he runs his own business designing catalogues. In 1994, Muir left and now works for Gas & Electric as a market analyst in San Francisco.
Sara, mother of four, is a computer software problem-solver at a financial marketing company associated with Princeton University.
Running Kappit is Carl, the president, printer and artist of Kappit. Since 1996, he has worked at Pomona High School as a science teacher, football coach and golf coach. He has made the school’s jersey for the football team and shirts for the golf team through his company. Other current employees include Dorothy and Deli Elrod, part-time sewer for the past 10 years.
Rodney is working for the company; he also holds down a full-time private practice as a psychologist. His dedication to the company is steadfast, despite failing vision.
Dorothy oversees the company and does everything from answering phones to sewing and printing. At her feet are four grandchildren whom she watches every week day. “I enjoy what I do very much,” she says. “I enjoy having my grandchildren here because there is enough space.”
“You meet a lot of interesting people,” says Dorothy. “People are interested in hats, and it is not as lucrative as people may think. It is clearly a novelty item.”
Kappit has extended its services. It now designs a variety of items, including sun caps, crew caps, cyclist caps, team caps, spirit caps, baseball caps, signs, t-shirts and tote bags. They are also known for making Kappit Kids Books including “Indian Animals,” “Greek Animals,” and “Colors.”
“We got out of it what we wanted,” says Dorothy. “We wanted to send our kids out on their own economic success, and it has happened.”