They all look drab and uninspired by comparison with Beverly Red's whimsically adorned baseball caps, that's what. Red's hats come with sewn-on horns, wings, feelers, lightning bolts. They are so flaky that even pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych can feel at home under one. Spying a blue hat with red wings, a woman in a New York bar whipped out $100 and begged to buy it. "I'm taking the night flight to Austin," she said, "and I want to get off the plane in Texas wearing that hat."
With that kind of point-of-purchase impact, small wonder that trendy shops like Bloomingdale's sell the caps, which range in price from $7 to $15, as fast as they come in. Last year the 31-year-old Beverly Red saw her once small Vermont firm, Freemountain Toys, and its Freemountain hat division gross nearly $6 million.
Until she came up with the notion of her zany caps, Beverly was producing a wacky bestiary of fur, velour and Velcro creatures she calls "Vegimals." Cuddly, cute and costly, they range from a giant $60 carrot you can hold hands with to a $21 mama whale with a baby resting in her belly to four tennis-ball-size peas zippered in a pod at $19.
Beverly has been cutting up like this ever since she was a little girl in Cleveland, where her father, William A. Brown, was an insurance broker. "From the time I was 5," she says, "I felt I was an artist. I used to sew dolls' clothes and always had same kind of project. My mother recently told me she'd just realized I wasn't still 7 and up in my room making things."
As an art major at Bennington College, Beverly did "soft sculpture" and then turned to little stuffed toys during a work semester with a greeting card firm in Cleveland. After college, however, she found herself on pins and needles about her future. She checked herself into Marathon House, a drug rehab center in Rhode Island. "I wasn't an addict," Beverly emphasizes, "but I needed help. Drugs are only symptoms of problems." After eight months she left, married to one of the counselors.
Her marriage lasted two years, and when it was over she decided it was time to design a whole new life. She legally changed her surname to Red ("I thought it was dramatic and me") and got a secretary's job at the University of Vermont. "I thought all I needed to do was make a home for myself," she recalls. "It was a real challenge for me to become an independent woman." Instead she felt hemmed in by the office routine and decided she needed a whole new pattern, maybe start some kind of business—but what? The solution turned out to be as easy as cutting the fabric for her first Vegimals and stitching them together at home in Burlington. Vegimals sold so well that Beverly soon moved her shop to a loft, then to a storefront and finally to Bristol (pop. 1,737) and the town's old grain mill—which she named, of course, the Vegimill.
"I like to do things no one has done before," she says of her success. "Sometimes I create something and it has its own life—but mostly I just make things I like. I'm constantly surprised that I can make people laugh with my designs." Now one of the major economic forces in Bristol, Red employs a staff of 10 in the mill plus a cottage industry of 50 home sewers.
Beverly drives a $10,000 BMW and worries that "greed can sneak up on you." To keep pure, she runs and takes saunas afterward. Last month a second runner came to town when she married Burlington architect John Anderson, 36. And, oh yes, the godmother of the Vegimal is a vegetarian.
What do the ancient Vikings, the winged god Mercury and 30 million reindeer have in common?