While enormously popular, NBC’s Seinfeld was never the best sitcom from which to obtain fashion inspiration. Jerry Seinfeld favored sneakers and was once coerced into wearing a puffy shirt; George Costanza adopted a Michelin Man look with his GORE-TEX coat; Elaine Benes marketed an “urban sombrero” that was half Spanish siesta and half Canadian Mountie.
That fictional hat was never actually part of the J. Peterman catalog, the real-life exotic goods dealer that Elaine worked for in the series. Founder John Peterman thought the idea was too silly and resisted any attempt to de-fictionalize it. But as the company’s current Kickstarter campaign can attest, he has since had a change of heart. The sombrero can now be yours for a backing pledge of $275, and you have the fake J. Peterman—actor John O’Hurley—to thank.
“It was a bone of contention for him,” O’Hurley tells mental_floss. “He thought it would be embracing parody at the expense of the core values of the company. I thought it would be an extension for the people who knew the brand through the Seinfeld attachment.” After years of bickering, O'Hurley won. But why was Peterman listening in the first place?
In a very strange case of life imitating art, O’Hurley joined the real J. Peterman company in 2001 as an investor after Peterman saw his expanding fortune from the Seinfeld plugs dwindle: a misguided retail expansion effort killed profits. Forced to declare bankruptcy and reassert control over the brand, Peterman asked O’Hurley to jump in. The actor is now a part owner and sits on the board of directors, a fact he still finds astonishing—given that he essentially stole his partner's identity.
“He kind of lost it to me,” O’Hurley says. “We’ll be walking down Madison Avenue and a cop will roll his window down and scream, ‘Peterman!' He’s talking to me.”
As part of a $500,000 fundraising campaign to offer more unique items, J. Peterman is issuing a limited number of the 22-inch diameter sombreros for backers, with an eye toward eventually carrying them in their regular product catalog. While it will differ slightly from the screen-worn prop, O’Hurley guarantees the quality will be worthy of the brand’s reputation.
“He found a sombrero designer in Mexico. This guy designed a sombrero for the Pope when he visited. It will resemble the one on the show but will be of a much better quality.”
The sombreros are expected to be available in November, with a special signed-and-numbered edition ($400) limited to 300 units. Those who pledge $8600 will have an opportunity to travel with Peterman on one of his famously quixotic journeys, though they should not expect to encounter anyone resembling Elaine’s bombastic onscreen employer.
“We are completely different people in reality," O'Hurley says. "That was a parody. He’s a very happy Kentuckian.”