In 2016, Markia Herron was living in Liberal, Kan., working at a community college and looking for something to occupy herself in her spare time.
"Liberal is in the middle of nowhere, and there was nothing to do," the 31-year-old Monticello native says. "I had no friends. I moved there for a career, and that's what I did. I don't know what happened, but I said, 'You have to do something while you're here.'"
She started making hats. And not just any old knockoff hats, but funky fedoras that she molds and shapes and cuts from felt made of rabbit or beaver fur and smooths with a sander. Sometimes she distresses them, like the one she's wearing now that looks like it's been burned and kicked around in the dust and that has a playing card stuck in its band. Sometimes she adds bright, printed fabric beneath the brim that acts like a colorful revelation, or puts splatters of paint on the crown.
"People like the wide brim hat with the fabric underneath," she says. "They do real well. I can do whatever I want with a hat when it comes to my creative sense."
Her lids, which she sells for $450-$600 under her Herron Hats label, have topped the heads of celebrities including comedian Cedric The Entertainer, actress-producer-writer Lena Waithe, singer Anthony Hamilton and actress Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black.
So far she has sold about 100, she says, and it all started because she was alone and bored in Kansas and wanted to make her own hat.
Herron grew up in Monticello with her sisters Nia and Chemia (she's the middle child). Their mom, Anja, was a manager for Aramark at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Herron was into athletics and attended the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on academic and athletic scholarships, playing center field on the school's softball team.
She traces her entrepreneurial streak to her high school years. An aunt gave her an old Mercedes that had seen better days.
"You knew it was me coming down the road from all the smoke coming from the car," she says with chuckle.
She had a CD player installed in the car and realized that she could do that herself. Soon, she was installing stereo systems for her friends. At UAPB, she made extra money fixing her friends' iPhones.
It was also while at UAPB that she started wearing hats as a way to add some pop to her otherwise neutral color choices.
"I'm a minimalist," she says. "My dress, there's no color that would stand out. I needed an accessory that will stick out, so I would wear a hat."
The hat-wearing thing really took off during graduate school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, she says: "I had longer dreadlocks, down to my back, and I was like, 'My hats look so dope with my locks.'"
After earning her master's degree in learning systems technology, she left for the job in Kansas and was soon trying to learn how a person goes about making hats.
"That was the hardest six months of my life, figuring out how to create a hat, or how the process really starts," she says.
She scoured the Internet for tips and found a store, Hat Man Jack's, in Wichita, Kan.
"I visited the shop, and I was there for like four hours," she says. "I asked for an apprenticeship, but it's a dying trade and people want to keep those secrets. The guy said 'I'll show you what the process looks like, but once you start making hats, don't sell them anywhere near where I'm making hats.'"
In 2017, she was back in Arkansas, working as an instructional designer at UALR and getting Herron Hats off the ground with a support system of friends and family around her.
Jiquintas "Jay" Brown of Little Rock has known Herron for about six years and has a few of Herron's hats, with one in the process of being made.
"The quality of the hats is so good, and you always get a lot of compliments, which makes you feel great," he says. "You can wear them any season, and it's great fashion. Markia is a very genuine, loving person and it feels good to support a close friend in her endeavor."
Herron's hats are unisex and versatile, she says. They fit with the individualism found in street style and can also be worn in formal settings and most everything in between.
"People wear them with street style and also with suits," she says. "I've had people buy them because they were going to a specific event and they needed a hat for that. But you can wear them with anything you want. People wear baseball caps, but I'll throw a fedora on my head. If it fits good, I'm gonna wear it."
Newspapers from the early 20th century were filled with ads for milliners, who made ladies' hats, and other hat-makers.
Hats were not only utilitarian, but fashionable. Women wore hats decorated with feathers from rare birds and men regularly wore bowlers, top hats, fedoras, newsboys and other styles.
All that changed, supposedly, with John F. Kennedy's Jan. 20, 1961, inauguration. Legend has it that the new president singlehandedly crushed the men's hat market that day.
Kennedy took the oath of office sans hat, but there are plenty of photos of him wearing a silk top hat before and after the ceremony. It's more likely that men's hat sales were already in decline before Kennedy was sworn in.
Of course hats never went away, but a chapeau made somewhere other than a factory can be hard to come by. Herron is one of just a few Arkansas hat-makers.
Clearwater Hats near Mountain View makes historically inspired hats which have been used in films like Cold Mountain and 3:10 to Yuma. Southern Bloodline was started by three students at Ouachita Baptist University and makes a line of snapback caps.
Hats Hides & Heirlooms is a Eureka Springs store that sells hats from makers all over the world. They also make ladies' hats including fascinators, the gravity defying, often intricately decorated formal headwear for women.
Holly Wescott, whose mother, Shonda Pinley, opened Hats Hides & Heirlooms 11 years ago, says that for some customers, bespoke hats are the way to go.
"It's the fit. Each head is different, and if you can start with someone who measures the head and analyzes that, the fit will be incredible. And the craftsmanship, it's really nice to know the person who made that hat and have a connection to them."
Herron's preference for muted colors crosses over into workspace choices. Her two-room studio in the Gans Building in downtown Little Rock is mostly white and gray, with a wall of photos that range from civil rights-era images to stylish pictures of people, including herself, in her hats.
In her workshop, she makes her hats on a simple table made from 4-by-4 posts, cinder blocks and a wood top. A dozen or so hats sit on shelves made by a friend, which fits into the Herron Hats custom vibe.
"Everything that you see here has been made by someone for me," she says. "I could have bought it at the store, but I make handmade products so I wanted things that were handmade."
That includes the tools, which have names like puller downer and foot toliker, and the rounded, wooden blocks she uses to make the hats to size.
To make the fur felt pliable, she uses a funnel made to pour gasoline into tractors that she has placed over a steamer that looks like it could have come from a late-19th-century sweatshop. Later, she will use a sander with 400 grit sandpaper to smooth the crown, which becomes as soft as rose petals.
"I have the minimum amount of things that you would need to make a hat," she says.
Her website, Herronhats.com, should be up by the time you read this or shortly after. Meanwhile, she shares updates and connects with potential customers on Instagram -- instagram.com/herronhatsand at facebook.com/herronhats.
She is frequently sought out by stylists who want hats for photo shoots, and she will be showing her hats at the Designers Choice Fashion Preview Show on April 6 in Little Rock.
She has friends who help with her hat-making and is usually in her studio in the evenings after work and on the weekends.
Unlike so many creative-types and entrepreneurs, though, Herron isn't anxiously awaiting the time when she can quit her day job.
As an instructional designer at UALR, she works with the school's e-learning department to build online courses. It's a career she clearly enjoys.
"I want to stay in education as long as I can," she says "I like it a lot. I don't want to feel like I went to school for no reason. I want to hold on to that as long as it feeds my soul."
Her hat-making is just another way to express herself and run her own business.
Thinking back to the days when she was installing stereos as a teenager and fixing her friend's smartphones in college, she says, "I didn't realize I was being an entrepreneur. That led to me thinking that you can really do whatever you desire. Why would I be making hats? Who makes hats? I tell people all the time, if you want to do something you should just do it. I never thought I'd be making hats in a million years, but I started doing it and I stuck with it."
Markia Herron shows a recent hat she made with a patterned fabric beneath the brim.
Markia Herron’s hats were shown at the 11th annual Designers Choice Fashion Preview, a fundraiser for the Timmons Arts Foundation that took place April 8 at the Metroplex in Little Rock.
Style on 01/22/2019
Print Headline: Crowning glory: Markia Herron already had a career in education, then she started making hats