Irwin and Mackey coveted them. They were confident their friends would covet them, too. And how could the friends of their friends resist coveting? So they started a website named Hat Covet - www.hatcovet.com - to sell them.
Six weeks later the online shopping site had been featured three times on Vogue.com, more than tripling Hat Covet's page views from 200 or 300 a day to 1,000. Right now, Hat Covet sells about two dozen hats a week, not bad for a brand-new fashion start-up.
Harper's Bazaar, as well as a handful of popular bloggers like Boston-based Allie Wears and Philadelphia-based "The Red Bag Report" have reached out to the Hat Covet ladies as well.
"I bought a beautiful, gray and brown hat with a rim, and it's just gorgeous," said Emily White, senior director of business operations at San Francisco-based Instagram.
White, 35, met Irwin a few months ago while visiting friends in Philadelphia. The meeting inspired a purchase, and in the following weeks, White posted the Hat Covet website on her Facebook page and urged friends in social media's elite to buy.
"These hats had been tucked away and hidden from the world, and now these women are bringing them to a younger generation of women," White said.
About three years ago, hats started gaining popularity with the most eccentric of today's trendsetters, from Nicki Minaj to Lady Gaga. (One of Gaga's milliners, Brenda Waites Bolling, recently came to Bernard's Salon and Day Spa in Cherry Hill for a trunk show.)
In April 2011, Philip Treacy fascinators donned by both European royalty and Victoria Beckham at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton were just as big a deal as Middleton's Alexander McQueen wedding frock.
Bucket or bowler, bonnet or boater, I was never a fan of hats. They were too diva-esque for my taste, and I associated them with pantyhose and gloves, remnants of a bygone era - one I was glad I missed.
But with every Pinterest posting and Throwback Thursday update, hats in all of their Kentucky Derby-esque elegance are becoming cool again.
After all, we've embraced everything vintage (and vintage-inspired) from 1930s A-line sheaths, 1950s fit-and-flare dresses, and 1970s bohemian skirts. So a cloché - especially with a dash of netting - can pull together an old-school look in a very current way. If only I could get all of my locks under one.
Before Hat Covet, both Mackey and Irwin wanted to become businesswomen in Philadelphia. They had the marketing background, but they didn't know what they wanted their focus to be.
Mackey, 29, moved here from New York in March to be closer to her fiance. While in New York, she was one-half of the Mackey Morgan Showroom, where she represented designers such as Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, and Bibhu Mohapatra.
Irwin, 28, grew up in Chestnut Hill, and after graduating from the University of New Hampshire , worked at a boutique public relations firm in Florida. She moved back home in 2009 and eventually landed a job selling menswear at Ralph Lauren at the Hyatt at the Bellevue, where she made local fashion connections.
At the same time, Irwin began establishing herself in social circles, including becoming a member of the Young Friends of the Academy of Music and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She attended restaurateur Jose Garces' Halloween house party last month.
David Waxman, a friend of Mackey's fiance, is a principal at MM Partners, the real estate development team that's gentrifying Brewerytown, the neighborhood just west of Fairmount Park nestled between Girard and Oxford Avenues.
One of its current projects is redeveloping the building that once housed the Hat Shoppe, an African American-owned boutique that specialized in selling "church hats" - a fixture at 29th and Girard since the 1940s that closed in 2010.
While cleaning the building, Waxman discovered about 3,000 hats left by the former owner, and offered them to Irwin and Mackey because he knew of the women's interest in fashion.
"We went over there because, well, we just wanted to check it out," Irwin said.
"But when we saw the hats, we knew we had to have them," Mackey said. "We wrote a check on the spot."
They paid about $1 a hat.
Among the inspirational gems were brown, navy, and orange bowlers courtesy of iconic millinery salon Adolfo, dozens of pink and red broad-brims by Oscar de la Renta, and purple caps with feathered detailing labeled Halston.
Irwin and Mackey spent the next weeks cleaning and categorizing the haute headpieces using special cleaners and brushes, ending up with about a thousand salable hats. They augmented their collection by scouring private estate sales and trolling vintage shops, adding a couple thousand more to the mix. Generally the hats sell for $150 to $300, although a Chanel can fetch more than $400.
The two taught themselves HTML code and built their own website - a black-and-white photo of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy wearing a trademark pillbox is the home page art.
In the next few weeks, Mackey and Irwin will open an online shop within Hat Covet to sell vintage jewelry, which fits into their philosophy: Only the rare is worth coveting.
"If you buy a hat from hatcovet.com, you'd be pressed to find someone else wearing your hat," Irwin said.