On your head

Tony Marks founded Product Zone in 2006

There is nothing that Tony Marks doesn’t know about the world of headwear. In an interview with P&P editor Melanie Attlesey, the director of Product Zone takes a trip down memory lane.

Tony has been involved with merchandise at all levels for the past 40 years. His career began in the 80s when he ran the club shop at Watford FC – a dream job for a lifelong fan.

During his tenure as the football club’s first ever full-time shop manager, Tony served loyal supporters with souvenirs and merchandise throughout the club’s glory years, while rubbing shoulders with the likes of club chairman Elton John, manager Graham Taylor, and the footballers themselves, including left winger John Barnes.

“The last time I saw John Barnes, I was out shopping in London and was going down one escalator, while he went up another. My wife pointed him, so I just shouted across ‘Barnesy’ as a reflex because that’s what I called him. He looked at me and said ‘Oh, Tony!’, as he disappeared. My wife said: ‘You do realise you haven’t seen him for about 20 years and he still remembers you.’ That was pretty amazing,” remembers Tony.

After 10 years of making contacts across the merchandise world, Tony became the general manager of the Chelsea FC club store for the following five years.

Sourcing and supplying

In both stores, Tony learnt a lot about sourcing and supplying merchandise. The souvenir and clothing suppliers would always show their whole range first, before showing the baseball cap to Tony as a last resort. This led him to think it was crazy that no-one specialised in headwear.

“One of the first baseball caps that I produced and sold at Watford, was famously worn by Elton John. It was a Sharon Lee foam fronted trucker with a flock print on the front. This got me thinking that baseball caps were more than just another accessory,” says Tony.

After an enjoyable 15 years at Watford and Chelsea, the time was right for Tony to move on. In 1997, he decided to utilise his knowledge and contacts to found Home Win which supplied football clubs and sports goods retailers direct. This company quickly grew to become the largest supplier of licensed football merchandise in the UK, with a particular focus on baseball caps.

Tony explains: “I was the first supplier to supply more than just a basic cap. I introduced a sandwich peak cap, which no football club had ever done before. I then introduced the woven label to the inside of the sandwich peak cap with the team names running around it. Then we introduced a pink and an ice blue cap specially for female supporters, because previously there had never been a cap for women. This was when I realised, I could actually specialise in headwear.”

Tony Marks pictured in 1982 while working in the Watford FC club shop

Headwear specialist

Another project beckoned and in 2006, Tony sold his half of the business, which is now owned by a leading American manufacturer of licensed products. The same year Tony launched Product Zone to supply headwear to the sports industry and charity sector, in particular supplying Walk the Walk breast cancer charity for over 20 years with headwear and other product.

As Tony’s customer base grew, he stopped supplying to customers directly, instead supplying to the trade.

During this time, Tony has seen certain styles of caps and headwear come and go. The sandwich peak cap was once the bee’s knees, but its popularity dropped with the arrival of the flat peak snapback. The popularity of the classic six-panel heavy brushed cotton baseball cap, however, has stood the test of time. The arrival of the 59Fifty cap by New Era into the mainstream in the late 90s caused some ripples in the headwear world for a while but, as Tony explains, its cost exceeded what football clubs were willing to pay for a cap.

“In America they sell the 59Fifty to your head size. Over here, if a guy wanted one, the reply would be ‘what size is your head?’ Who knows the size of their head? Whereas in the States people know the size of their head, believe it or not. The fitted caps sold really well, but shops were left with excess stock in small and very large sizes, which sinks your profit. As a buyer you would never know which sizes would sell, having said that New Era are getting something right as they are the most famous and successful headwear manufacturer in the world,” explains Tony.

Coming to the forefront

With the onset of coronavirus at the beginning of the year, Tony and his team have seen other styles come to the forefront. Jacquard bobble hats have been a big winner in recent months, particularly in demand from rugby clubs, hockey clubs and the promotional world. Tony uses a factory in Turkey for these as the minimums and lead times are much lower. In the corporate world, businesses have been seeking embroidered beanie hats to put into care packages, along with other items such as hand sanitiser, for their employees and customers.

For 2021, Tony predicts that the structured classic six-panel cap and unstructured dad cap will be very popular, in a move away from flat peak caps. “I think people are a lot more comfortable in a cap that fits their head properly,” he adds.

When it comes to decorating trends over the years, Tony has seen it all, from laser badges and ink-filled badges to badges that light up. However, nothing beats a good clean embroidery on the front of the cap. “It’s traditional,” he says.

Tony has many tales to tell of his trips to China over the years to find factories to work with. He has dealt with one of his main factories for over 20 years and now works with half a dozen factories across the country.

“It still amazes me today the processes involved in making a cap. It’s quite remarkable. It starts with being just a sheet of fabric, then the panels are cut, then they sew the sweat band on, then they have to combine it with the peak. Then they add the inner label and another person stamps the button on the top. Eventually, it becomes a cap. One of the factories we work with even makes the fabric from raw cotton. It’s quite an incredible process,” Tony explains.

Some of the factories that Tony visits are huge, with embroidery set ups as big as car parks. “It’s so noisy as well!” he adds.

One particular tale that Tony likes to regale about a visit to China starts by trying to find his way to the factory. The owners would not organise transport from his hotel to the factory, so Tony got in a taxi – and four-and-a-half hours later found his destination.

“We eventually arrived, and the taxi driver looked warily at me. Neither of us spoke each other’s language, so I held a finger up to sort of say please don’t go anywhere! I was inside the factory 45 minutes before heading back to the taxi – it was horrific! Then the taxi driver took a wrong turn on the way back to the hotel and we ended up on a military base with helicopters circling above and machine guns pointing at us! Ten hours later, I managed to get back to the hotel, never to repeat the journey again. I took the hint that if the factory doesn’t want to pick you up there is obviously something to hide! Every trip is an adventure,” he says.

Plain stock

To meet customer demand, 2020 saw Product Zone supply a plain stock range for the first time.

“During lockdown I began to think of other ways to expand our business. At every trade show we have attended, we get asked what plain stock we do. We’ve always had to point down the aisle and direct potential customers to our competitors. We thought we were missing a trick, so decided to launch a plain stock range. If someone wants just six hats or a thousand hats, we can now supply them from stock,” Tony explains.

The range consists of 17 different hats, caps and beanies in a variety of colours. Printers and embroiderers can now purchase the same quality products that had previously been only attainable by merchandise buyers. These items are manufactured in China but stocked in the UK. An embroidery service is also offered by Product Zone.

Tony expects this side of the business to grow rapidly in 2021 as word gets round of the plain stock range. As he approaches 40 years in the merchandise world, he says he has not regretted any job he has ever had and that it’s been an absolute blast.

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