Maria Rubio was unsure about graduating from Arizona State University after having a daughter as a sophomore.
“I was about to give up,” he said.
But Ms. Rubio, 22, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a child, said becoming a mother in 2020 finally gave her the motivation to finish college. “More than ever, I wanted to graduate and do something for myself and my daughter,” said Ms. Rubio, who lives in Phoenix.
At her graduation this month, Ms. Rubio plans to have her daughter in the audience, and on top of her head, in the form of a custom portrait to decorate Ms. Rubio’s graduation cap. The portrait, which cost $120, features portraits of Ms. Rubio and her daughter.
“It’s the cherry on top of my achievement,” said Ms. Rubio.
Decorating graduation caps has long been a tradition among graduates, many of whom do all the gluing, beading, and shimmering themselves or with friends. But those who would rather outsource the task can now hire a growing number of artisans to create elaborate works of art that sit flat on a cap.
Kimberlee Morales, who did the portrait of Ms. Rubio’s cap, said she received requests for graduations through 2034. She began customizing caps in 2016, while she was still in college. After some she had made for her classmates gained attention on social media, strangers began requesting her own designs, she said. When Instagram later promoted her business, Kim’s Custom Capsresulted in even more orders.
Ms. Morales, who works out of a studio at her home in Norwalk, California, said she’s doing about 250 custom designs this year. Each one usually takes two to three hours to decorate. They start at $65, but pieces that require more detailed portraits can cost upwards of $100.
Ms. Morales also sells semi-custom styles (starting at $28), which can be personalized with quotes or photos, as well as pre-made designs (starting at $26).
Judith Deunas, 24, who is studying for an online degree from Thomas Edison University, commissioned a custom piece from Ms. Morales for her graduation this winter. Ms. Duenas, who lives in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., and works as an administrative assistant, said she and Ms. Morales spent days developing the design. She features a prosthetic leg, which Ms. Dueñas has had since childhood, as well as elements that nod to her Mexican heritage.
Ms. Duenas said that when she saw the finished product, which cost $120, she “cried for a good 10 minutes.”
Ms. Morales said that most of her clients who request custom designs are children of immigrants or have immigrated to the United States. Many, she added, “owe their trips to their families and want to honor that.”
Like Ms. Morales, Emiah Youman began customizing graduation caps while in college. Ms. Youman, who started selling them through her business, Custom stitching by Emiahin 2019, it now also offers pre-made styles (starting at $50) as well as hand-painted designs (starting at $210).
Ms Youman, who lives in Washington, said she has received about 100 orders this year. Her custom designs can take up to three months to complete, in part because she runs her business while attending law school at Howard University. “It’s just me doing everything,” she said. But, she added, “getting videos and photos of the families wearing the hats, it’s really special.”
Marc Goldberg said he saw the potential for a cap-decorating business in the late 1990s, when his mother couldn’t place him in the crowd of students in black caps at his college graduation. “I thought, ‘There has to be a way to stand out from the crowd,'” said Mr. Goldberg, who lives in Midland Park, New Jersey. Years later, in 2012, he started tassel toppersthat allows customers to design caps online.
Tassel Toppers’ custom caps start at $25, in part because the company doesn’t offer hand-painted styles; premade designs start at $15. Mr. Goldberg, who also owns a technology company, said this allows some orders to ship within 24 hours of being placed. The company, which employs five full-time design assistants, can fill up to 1,000 orders a day between April and June, Goldberg said.
Sarah Plazola, a part-time substitute teacher in Los Angeles who started making custom hats in 2017, said she’s received thousands of requests for orders by 2022. This year, Ms. Plazola said she’s accepted about 260 orders for her custom designs, which start at $30. She also sells pre-made styles, starting at $25.
Ms. Plazola said that in the years since she started her business, Uncapped Creations, has noticed that the field of cap decorators has become more crowded and more designs are beginning to look alike. He once had to ask another manufacturer to stop offering styles that borrowed too much from his.
“I don’t mind when other manufacturers add their own personality and creativity to it,” said Ms. Plazola. “But when it’s a complete copy, I won’t keep quiet.”
Although she has more competition, Ms. Plazola still has to turn away clients.
“There are so many graduates,” he said. “I can’t serve all of them.”