This article appeared in the Sunday, June 16 (Father’s Day), issue of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin Sunday Magazine.
Honolulu ad man Brent Black is rejuvenating the art of weaving and shaping the classic Panama hat
by Nadine Kam
The grab and the pinch drive Brent Black crazy. Sure, you might see it done by one of those well-heeled cads in 1940s film noirs, but that’s no way to treat a Panama hat.
The right way to pick up a Panama hat is much more gingerly—hardly instinctual for a man’s man—and that is to pick it up carefully on opposite ends of the brim with one’s fingertips, place it on one’s head, lightly pulling it snug in front and back, while delicately pushing down.
Pinching the hat at its center just bends the straw, and over time this creates a crease sharpened to the point of snapping.
“Even steel will snap if you keep bending it back and forth,” Black said, “and straw is much more fragile.”
That’s something few intend in light of the hats’ cost, starting at a few hundred dollars up to $30,000.
When one of his customers sent a hat back within a week of purchase for a size adjustment, Black said, “I took a look at it, and I was furious; it was already heavily creased. It was really bad customer service, but I gave that guy hell. I really love those hats, and I take it personally when someone ruins one.
“It’s like if you plant a garden and someone comes tromping through it. It’s like, ‘Hey, show a little respect, huh?’ ”
BLACK IS NOT exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to be practicing the dying Old World art of hat blocking, or shaping. If his mom had her way, he’d be a doctor, having had an expensive education toward donning that white coat and stethoscope at Johns Hopkins University.
He might also have followed in his father’s—a longtime editor of the [Cincinnati Enquirer]—footsteps, but soured on journalism when he realized police beat stories weren’t exactly world-altering material. He also didn’t like the idea of endangering his life by covering crime in Baltimore’s ghettos, either.
He eventually found his place as a creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi in San Francisco before finding his niche in Honolulu’s advertising community. Aston Hotels & Resorts is one of his clients, and that television ad with the couple shifting around in bed to highlight late checkout is one of his.
His parents could never figure out how he makes a living, but they did have one early indicator into his current passion in that even as a kid, he liked to dress up.
“I’d go to school in Davy Crockett outfits and Superman suits. My mom used to look at me and think I was weird but figured whatever’s happening on the other end must be OK or I’d be teased. But most of the other kids thought it was pretty cool.
“And it wasn’t that I liked hats so much, but hats defined what it is I was,” Black said. “If I was Davy Crockett, I had to have the coonskin cap. If I was an Indian, I’d have the feather headdress. If I was Sherlock Holmes, I’d have the detective hat. Without even realizing it, I’d developed an appetite for hats.”
© Brent Black
And that was the mind-set he took to South America on his first trip there in 1988 shortly after he arrived in Hawaii. What he found amazed him: hats that weighed less than stationery before the leather hatband and outer ribbon were added. Each was created painstakingly by hand, with rows of weave—up to  per inch—made with straw as fine as thread. The weavings felt more like fabric than straw. “I have linen pants that aren’t as fine,” Black said.
In the preface to the French coffee-table book “Panama, a Legendary Hat,” Black wrote of his first encounter with a genuine Montecristi hat, saying, “As I weighed it in my hands, held it to the light to study the impossibly fine weave, felt its suppleness between my fingers, and listened to an old weaver lament the impending extinction of this centuries-old art—I knew my life had found its mission.”
Black said it broke his heart to know that the art form was dying and that future generations might be deprived of the sensory pleasure of feeling, seeing, smelling a Panama hat.
“My immediate way to save the hats was to buy them,” Black said. “I never quibble about price. I just pay what the weavers ask, sometimes more than they ask. Other people started copying what I do, and at first I was ticked off, but I realized the more exposure these hats get, the better odds they’ll survive.
“I have a pretty simplistic economic view of the world, which is, if people aren’t making them, then it’s because people aren’t buying them,” he said. “And here I am; I’m interested in advertising and marketing, and maybe the person marketing them could be me.”
If he were around in the 1800s, the task would have been easy. Black might have struck a deal with the weavers and then sat back in a hammock to sip rum the rest of his life as the hats’ fame spread. It became known as the hat of kings, having landed in the hands of European royalty. Napoleon Bonaparte had one, as did Edward VII of England.
The hat got a boost in the late 1800s when the U.S. government bought 50,000 of them for troops headed to the Caribbean to fight the Spanish-American War. Gold miners en route to California also sought them out.
Though the hats look just as good on women, the hats’ macho reputation caught on via film as Clark Gable donned one in “Gone With the Wind,” Humphrey Bogart wore one in “Casablanca” [he did not] and Charlton Heston followed suit in “The Naked Jungle.” And let’s not forget Anthony Hopkins, who used it as a symbol of power as Hannibal Lector in “Silence of the Lambs.”
The hats also found fans in Japan’s Emperor Akihito, Al Capone, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, hitting a peak in the ’40s and ’50s, when society became less formal.
“The old etiquette is not supported,” Black laments. “There’s no more hat check, so if you’re wearing one, what do you do with it?
“But people do appreciate it. They’ll call out from their cars, ‘Hey, nice brim, brah!’ ”
TO BE CORRECT, a Panama hat should be re-christened Ecuador hat. Montecristi is the small town in Ecuador, between Quito and Cuenca [not correct], where the indigenous toquilla palm (Carludovica palmata), from which the hats are made, grows. It is not actually a true palm, but a perennial herb named by Spanish King Charles Ludovic IV [not accurate], who was among the first to popularize the hats in the West.
Weavers peel, boil and dry the palm fronds before splitting them to desired widths with their thumbnails. The quality of the straw is crucial to the finished product.
“You couldn’t take lauhala and split it that fine,” Black said, although he said he’s seen outstanding examples from the Cook Islands.
But Ecuador isn’t exactly a bustling business capital, so weavers headed north, past Colombia, to trade central, Panama. Buyers there since the late 1800s simply assumed the hats were made in Panama.
Black returned home from Ecuador wanting to learn more about them and discovered Tom Miller’s “The Panama Hat Trail,” a book that’s been described as telling “a captivating story of cultures in collision, raw capitalism, and an exotic, humorous journey.”
“The author changed my life. I read the book and now I’m doing this,” he says on a Saturday afternoon as he wet down, steamed and shaped his hats on elegant blocks that he discovered in Nashville as he continues scooping up old tools from hat shops where owners are calling it quits or from heirs who have no use for them.
Once the hats dry, they retain the “memory” of the blocks, bouncing back into shape after use.
Just weeks ago, Black was in Massachusetts, honing his blocking skills. “The first couple days was like coming out of a martial arts class,” he said. “I had blisters, patches of skin were coming off my hand, my chest was sore, I pulled a muscle.”
This is necessary because, although the Ecuadorians are excellent weavers, he said he doesn’t consider their blocking skills comparable.
Progress has meant “the hat market has been collapsing since the early 1960s, and what’s left isn’t high quality; it’s mass-market, one size fits thumb [huh?],” Black said [I don’t think I did say that]. “In stores in Quito, I’ve seen beautiful hats that have been wrecked by whoever shaped them. They’re over-ironed, over-stiffened.”
“Most of the hats you see in stores today are shaped on a hat press, a hydraulic press that’s slammed down with a whole lot of pressure, so much so that the straws become shiny—that’s OK, if that’s what you want—but it also weakens the straw so that [the] hat doesn’t last that long. It’s like Zircons are not bad-looking, but they’re not diamonds.”
So he imports pre-blocked hats from Ecuador with simple round crowns that work to keep the sun out of farmers’ faces but which lack sex appeal in the West, where style reigns. [I have no idea what this is supposed to mean; I am not aware that I am involved with anything resembling the hats described. bbb]
He’d prefer leaving the labor of blocking the hats to someone else [I would NOT!], but resigned himself to the task to get the quality he desires. His exacting demands have led some craftsmen and suppliers to tell him to take his business elsewhere. (Is it so wrong to ask for thread so fine on the hat’s inner leather band that it won’t feel like a nubby ridge pressed against someone’s delicate forehead?)
Few others would be crazy enough to insist on having the hats made by hand, beginning to end, but Black’s attention to detail has paid off in that his hats have won the affection of celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Mondavi, Martin Sheen and Bill Cosby. Bobby Brown bought one for Whitney Houston while on Maui, and it’s Black’s hats that appear throughout the film “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which starred Will Smith and Matt Damon.
As fussy as Black is, he said he’s come across no more than six people who can finish the hats to his specifications. “A lot more people say they can do it,” he said.
AT SOME POINT, Black should have snapped to his senses. Getting to Montecristi—which he describes as “one of the ugliest towns I’ve ever been in. There’s no reason to go there except for the hats”—is an endurance test that involves flying to Guayaquil and boarding a series of sputtering buses [not correct]. During one of his trips to [Ecuador] he contracted cholera. One time, his passport was stolen. Another time, he was having dinner at a restaurant when a group of armed bandits arrived and proceeded to rob everyone…except him.
“Thank God for long tablecloths,” he said. He had ducked under the table and couldn’t see all that was happening. “Just before they left, they fired one shot into the air, and I thought, ‘My God, they’re going to start executing people.’ Thankfully, they didn’t, but all the time I was thinking, ‘Noooo, not here, not this way, not now.’ ”
Not when he feels he has so much work to do through his nonprofit Montecristi Foundation, which he formed to help the weavers.
“The point of the foundation is first to take care of their health needs, sanitation issues, food,” Black said. “[The] motto is ‘Salud, Comida, Arte’—‘Health, Food, Art.’ In order to save the art, [first we must] save the people.
“I’ve arranged for doctors and dentists to get there from the nearest large town. I’ve bought eyeglasses for the weavers, and staples like rice, sugar and cooking oil. In the town where the master weavers are, they told me they’d never had a fiesta. But they have TV; they get around so they know exactly what a party is.
“I brought in caterers and a disco-mobile. The town population grew incredibly when they learned food was involved.”
Lately, he’s learned from the weavers that they see more gray straws appearing in their work. When that happens, the weaver has to remove the undesirable straw and re-weave another in its place. It is a time-consuming task when it already takes six weeks to six months to complete a hat.
“I don’t know whether it has an environmental cause or if it’s caused by a fungus or insect. I’d like the foundation to eventually get someone from the University (of Hawaii) to go work on that problem. It would be tremendous for the weavers who won’t have to lose time from doing their work over and over again.”
IN FRONT OF Black’s work station is a smooth piece of wooded sculpture that obviously started its life as a tree trunk, its branches now spread like a tripod on the floor. It could be functional, but it seems too short to be a stand. You could sit on the stump end, but with a circumference of about 6 inches, it would be quite painful.
Now imagine this pedestal shoved against your chest as you bend over it, arms dangling in front of you, your chest bearing the full weight of your torso. This is how the weavers position themselves as they plait row after row of the toquilla threads, and this is why few of Montecristi’s youths are anxious to learn the craft. Only about 20 master weavers remain, according to Black. Many more turn out imperfect hats.
The weavers know this and have learned to use what leverage they have to get rid of them. “They may have eight good hats and two bad ones, and they’ll say to buy the eight I have to buy the two,” Black said.
Whenever Third World labor is involved in satiating the consuming desires of the West, there is a question of how much helping others equals helping oneself.
COURTESY OF BRENT BLACK
“It’s a fine balance,” Black said. “I don’t like the notion and I find myself guilty of wishing everything could stay the same and not modernize, but Ecuador is not my Disneyland, and sure enough, when they finished a nearby highway, half the population left. They went from 2,000 to 1,000 people.
“But there’s no exploitation anywhere near this. It’s a cottage industry. People do this work voluntarily. It’s just one of the ways to make money in a country where there are few opportunities.
“The people are poor, but they are not in some kind of sweatshop where they have to put in 14, 16 hours a day. They work when they want and they do other things.
“The irony is that people who think my prices are high think they can go to Montecristi and get it cheaper. First of all, it costs a lot to get to Montecristi—about $1,500 coach from Honolulu if you work at finding the best fare—then it’s a 24-hour trip, and then they find it’s still expensive, so they come home with (lower-grade) Cuenca hats.”
Yes, that is the end of the article.
I corrected the misspellings and annotated the most bothersome of the inaccuracies, but left as-written many others. There are a couple of places where the story just jumps from one thought to another in mid-sentence. I have no idea what was up with that, probably lumps of the story were left out by mistake when it was being prepared for printing. I greatly appreciate the time the reporter invested in interviewing me and writing the article. Thanks, Nadine.