Jeans are in the genes for West Wyalong’s Bernie Kearins
August 14, 2015
For two generations, the Kearins family have guided Riverina men and boys on the road to good fashion sense.
The late Pat Kearins ran the business, Pat Kearins Menswear, in West Wyalong from 1947, outfitting farmers, business men, school children and workers.
His son Bernie and wife Diane took over management of the business in the 1970s but semi-retired in 2011 to dabble in beef production.
They have continued with the hat side of the business, Hats at Pats, originally started by Pat in 1947.
The couple travel to 22 festivals and events around Australia, including the Henty Machinery Field Days, with their range of Akubra hats, work jeans and leather belts.
“We love the people at Henty – it is the iconic field days,’’ Bernie said.
“I used to share a site with Graham Booth (Henty clothing retailer) until he sold his shop – I’ve had the same site for 16 years.
“I used to be one of a few Akubra outlets at the field days but now there are many more.
“Visitors at Henty love the wide brim style of the Riverina but the Cattleman is still the number one seller.’’
Hats at Pats will have at least 24 styles available in a range of colours, including the popular Cattleman, Cooper Pedy, Rough Rider, Riverina, Bianca, Stoney Creek and Territory.
Bernie has used the quiet periods to refurbish his “hat trailer’’ fitted with pull-out drawers for displaying the 500 hats he will have at Henty this year.
Workland and Blue Dog jeans, leather belts, hat care kits, hat blocks (stretchers), shirts, ladies jeans and Harold boots are also stocked.
“A lot of people from the West Wyalong, Lake Cargellico, Tullibigeal and local districts go to the Henty field days each year,’’ Bernie said.
The phrase “Hats at Pats’’ was coined back in 1947 when Bernie’s father, Pat, opened Pat Kearins Menswear in West Wyalong.
In the 1920s Pat had worked for Ariah Park stock and station agent, C.K. Hill, and had the honour of selling the first header into the Lake Cargellico district.
When the depression hit in the 1930s, Pat was forced to find stock and station agency work at Gunnedah but was ended up back working for general merchants, John Meagher & Co, at West Wyalong.
He worked in the stock and station agency, produce and farm merchandise section until the depression took a toll on this side of the business, and he was moved into menswear in 1935.
“Dad later saw an opportunity for a menswear store – he had the experience so officially opened his own business on St Patricks Day, 1947,’’ Bernie said.
“He ran that store in the main street of West Wyalong until his death in late 1974.
Specialising in men’s hats, Pat was encouraged by visiting sales reps in 1947 to “buy whatever you can’’ as they predicted a “drought’’ in clothing as factories transitioned from war time production.
He placed his hat orders on a buying trip to Sydney and returned to West Wyalong.
“Dad had just put the phone on at the shop – a rare thing in those days – and he immediately got four calls from his reps saying they had secured a dozen hats each for him,’’ Bernie said.
“Dad was a conservative bloke and was worried sick how he was going to pay for all these hats.
“Leading into the West Wyalong show, Dad advertised in the paper with the tag line ‘Hats at Pats for the show’.
“By show morning, he didn’t have a hat left and was taking orders – he never let that slogan go.’’
Bernie began working in the shop during school holidays, cleaning windows and floors, then started full time after leaving school.
The business was booming despite the town boasting seven menswear outlets and three boot shops.
“We were measuring up customers for half a dozen suits a week – in Dad’s day most suits were tailor made.’’
Bernie got itchy feet and spent several years travelling including working on Western Australian cattle stations, and recalls the first train load of iron ore leaving the Pilbara on August 16, 1966.
“The train was covered in flags and Lang Hancock was standing atop his Landrover celebrating the event at the rail crossing to Wittenoon,’’ he said.
Bernie returned to West Wyalong to dabble in training trotters but when Pat died at the age of 69 in 1974 he took over the business.
Denim jeans had revolutionised fashion for men in the 1970s and Bernie had embraced it, incorporating a jeanery.
A keen horseman, he had dabbled in western jeans from 1960, and their store became the first R M Williams outlet in NSW in that year.
A pioneer in men’s fashion, he was one of the first to sell Levi jeans in the country and by the early 70s, Levi jeans were a hot item’’.
Loyal customers flocked to the shop from the surrounding districts of Lake Cargellico, Tullibigeal, Grenfell, Temora, Barmedman and Ungarie, tripling annual sales figures.
Women’s wear was incorporated into the shop in the 1970s.
“In the 1950s, 60s and 70s everyone came to town to do their shopping on a Friday, and if it was raining, you couldn’t move on the street for the people,’’ Bernie said.
Men’s fashion moved from conservative to casual in the 1970s with tailored suits gradually disappearing.
“Drought and high interest rates in the 1980s perhaps contributed to our ending up the only menswear specialty store in town,’’ Bernie said.
Suit hire and surf wear emerged in the 1970s, with young people spending their disposable income on fashion.
“In the last five years, on-line fashion has certainly had a big impact on what I do, especially with western wear,’’ Bernie said.
The Kearins sold their business in 2011 to semi-retire.
“I have kept the Hats at Pats slogan and maintained the hat business – we have been with Akubra as it’s an iconic Australian brand and unique,’’ Bernie said.
“I had originally taken a few Akubra hats and work trousers to a gymkhana at Tullibigeal in the early 1980s, and it grew from there.’’
Sales out of the car boot developed into a business of its own, with Hats at Pats now a regular sight at field days, festivals, campdrafts and major events around the country.