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J. Peterman Kickstarter campaign hopes to make the ‘Seinfeld’ urban sombrero a reality

The J. Peterman urban sombrero
A J. Peterman Kickstarter campaign promises to turn the urban sombrero -- a punchline from an episode of “Seinfeld” -- into a reality, if it meets its $500,000 funding goal by May 20.
(J. Peterman)

A currently underway Kickstarter campaign may turn a 20-year-old “Seinfeld” J. Peterman punchline into an actual wearable product. Introduced to the world in a 1996 episode of the sitcom (“The Foundation”), the urban sombrero was a fictitious piece of headgear that Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) puts on the cover of the J. Peterman catalog after Peterman (John O’Hurley) left her in charge during an extended trip to Burma. The hat appearing on-screen in that episode combined the traditional sombrero silhouette – a generous curved brim and dented conical crown with the brown felt fabrication more traditionally found in a fedora with a small spray of feathers at the side of the crown lending the look a slightly Tyrolean feel.

In the frozen-in-amber “Seinfeld” universe of 1996, the hat that (in Elaine’s words) “combines the spirit of old Mexico with a little big-city panache” is a colossal failure that disappears (but for a brief cameo several episodes later). But, thanks to the show’s enduring popularity -- and nearly constant presence in syndication – the urban sombrero that never was never really went away.

In the real world, the fortunes of the J. Peterman Company waxed and waned, weathering bankruptcies, reorganizations and multiple owners before the namesake founder, John Peterman, returned to the helm in the late Aughts.

Now, in a Bizarro-world twist, some two decades after the “Seinfeld” writers first floated the ridiculous notion of it, the real Peterman and the fake one (who is actually an investor in the company) have dangled the possibility that at least 500 honest-to-goodness urban sombreros will be manufactured – if the company can raise $500,000 via its Kickstarter campaign by May 20, that is.

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The stated purpose of the Kickstarter campaign is to allow the company to “creatively finance new products” -- though it probably can’t hurt that along the way the effort is exposing the travel- and safari-themed catalog brand, which was at its peak of popularity in the late ‘90s – to several new generations of potential shoppers. And though the urban sombrero might be the item that tickles funny bones of a certain age, it’s not the only item that could see the light of day if enough supporters open their wallets. Other items that might become a reality include a mod flapper dress (“Part 1920, Part 1960,” reads the description) and a ‘70s-era motorcycle jacket.

Incentives to pledge your support range from the latest J. Peterman Owner’s Manual Catalog (for a pledge of $1 or more) to an eight-day, seven-night U.K. buying trip with Peterman himself (the real one) for $8,600 (airfare not included). And one of those urban sombreros (retail value $325) can be yours for a pledge of $275.

As of this writing, the effort, which launched April 11, only has pledges of $92,694 toward the $500,000 funding goal. If the effort doesn’t average somewhere in the neighborhood of $27,157 a day from here on out, there’s a pretty good chance the urban sombrero will remain mythical millinery. But if the effort is a success, we’re already thinking about what other “Seinfeld”-inspired apparel Team Peterman might turn to next.

Puffy shirt, anyone?

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For more musings on all things fashion and style, follow me @ARTschorn.


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