Hats have been a running theme in Stefani McMurrey’s life. When she was a toddler with a finicky attitude toward food, her mother would don a patchwork bucket hat and goof around.


          “If she put it on, it would get me laughing and while my mouth was open, she would shove the food in,” she says. “From the age of one to three I was addicted to that hat. I never had a woobie, never sucked a thumb, but I loved that hat.”


          In college she came to be known as “The Hat Girl” after being the only girl rushing her sorority who wore one.


          But it wasn’t until January of 2002, when she attended the Sundance Film Festival that it occurred to her that her passion for headwear could be forayed into a business.


          On a whim, she bought a red, wool-felt, western-style hat and started wearing it around town.


          “Literally everywhere I went, people stopped me and said, “Where can I get that hat?” or “I want it right off your head.” I’d paid $60 for the hat, and once I had a guy offer me $220 I realized, “Hey, this is a good business opportunity.”


          Apparently, when area resident McMurrey gets an idea in her fashionably attired head, she doesn’t sit on it. She came home from the festival, researched distributors, found one she liked, hooked up with a kind soul who offered to design her Web site – www.SmartHats.com – for free and hit the ground running.


          Though she was making a comfortable salary selling advertising for magazines like Talk and Martha Stewart Living, she says the time was right, in both a personal and general sense, for her to take this step.


          “My job wasn’t fulfilling at all and I wasn’t enjoying what I did,” she says. “And now, as cheesy as it may sound, to see these women light up when they put on a hat, it’s instant gratitude for me. A hat can boost a person’s self esteem. I love seeing shy people, or people who don’t feel cute or are having a bad hair day when they put on a hat. It’s like that slipper in Cinderella. They put on a hat and they just glow.”


          Having the likes of Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and others embracing this fashion trend hasn’t hurt business, she adds.


          “I’m finding that people are a lot more accepting of hats,” she says. “Rather than, ‘Who does she think she is to be wearing a hat?’ They’re thinking, ‘Who is she? What a great hat!’”


          In that sense, she says, this city is a good place to be a hawker of hats. “Dallasites are definitely fashion forward.”


          McMurrey has a Lakewood-based studio where she works on personalizing the hats with feathers, jewels, appliques, etc., and her showroom is in the back of her Mitsubishi Montero. When she pops open the back hatch, dozens of hats of different styles – cowboy, bucket, fedora, newsboy, and more – are stacked on a wire-shelving unit. “I started keeping them in my car because I wear hats out at night and I just never knew when someone was going to want buy one off my head,” she explains.


          The enterprising McMurrey even plans to install custom lighting in the car so that her night-owl customers can better view the merchandise. Even if it weren’t her livelihood, she says, she wouldn’t mind people accosting her about her headwear.


          “When you put on a hat you have to be prepare for attention. It says, “I’m approachable. I’m fun. I’m outgoing. Talk to me.”


If you’re not in the mood to be bothered, you shouldn’t be wearing a hat.”


 She also has a philanthropic side that has melded well with her business. McMurrey, who has Crohn’s disease, recently organized the Urban Cowboy Revival charity party (Urban Cowboy is one of her favorite movies) for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. For the benefit, McMurrey managed to get hats personally autographed by Dolly Parton, Jack Ingram (who also performed at the event) Cary Pierce (of the band Jackopierce) and Pat Green. The signed hats were then auctioned off for the benefit. (She left other hats with radio station 99.5 The Wolf to be autographed by Willie Nelson, Toby Keith and Lee Ann Womack).


Where does she get the nerve to approach those in the public eye?


“I’m a stalker,” she says jokingly, and then turns serious. “You have to be willing to take risks. And in a business like fashion, it who’s wearing what that counts.”


Her tenacity has paid off. Ingram and Green are regular customers now, and Vinnie Paul Abbott (drummer for the heavy metal band Pantera and a Dallas resident) ordered 10 replicas of the same hat from her last spring after she met him at Cuba Libre.


Though passionate about her merchandise, McMurrey says she realizes that the hat trend won’t last forever, and that her enterprise might not always be profitable.


“Hats are fashion and fashion is fickle,” she says. “So I don’t hang my hat, if you will, that my life business will be this.


“But I’ll always wear hats, and I’ll always be a resource for people that want to wear them.”