Interviews

MATIAS BBC INTERVIEW

1) 1) When did you arrive for the first time to Ecuador?

1988.

In 1987, I read a book, a travel essay about Panama hat production in Ecuador. (The Panama Hat Trail, by Tom Miller) There were a couple of chapters about Montecristi. Reading the high praise for Montecristi hats caused me to want see some. The book had a prediction that the art of Montecristi hats would be dead in less than twenty years. I decided to go to Montecristi to see the hats before they were gone. It seemed like it would a fun adventure. It was. I went to Montecristi in search of Sr. Rosendo Delgado Garay, a dealer mentioned in the book. I found him. I saw, felt, held, and even smelled my first Montecristi hats. I did not taste them. (I can honestly say I have never licked a Montecristi hat.) They were worth the 11,000-mile trip. I touched the hats, and the hats touched my heart. I fell in love with Montecristi hats.

A hat dealer in Guayaquil had predicted that the art of Montecrisit hats would be dead in twenty years. I decided to make it my mission to prevent his prediction from coming true. Many have said I succeeded, that without my naïve and Quixotic efforts the prediction would have come true. I enjoy the irony that the prediction itself made the prediction not come true.

But it is obvious the art is not saved. It is merely on life support. I’m happy the life of the art has been extended, but I fear extinction is still likely. Why? Simple math.

A reasonable goal to keep the art alive is to make sure the weavers can receive at least minimum wage in Ecuador, which I understand to be $354/month times 14 months. So about $5000 per year. Next, calculate how many hats per year a weaver can produce. Simón can weave only two hats per year, but he is a special case. Let’s look at weavers of more commercial grades of Montecristi hats. Consider a hat with a weave count of 20 per one inch, or 20x20 per square inch. This hat will require about 3 weeks to weave in Las Pampas, about 5 weeks to weave in Pile.

So the weaver in Las Pampas can weave about 16 hats per year. In order to earn minimum wage, the weaver would have to earn $312.5 per hat. They earn about one-third of that amount. For weavers to earn minimum wage, prices paid to weavers would have to triple. If prices paid to weavers triple then retail prices will AT LEAST triple. If retail prices for hats with a weave of 20/inch triple, no one will buy them.

2) I know you visited Montecristi and Cuenca in your trips, but I am really curious about how did you end up in Pile, this little little town?

For me, the search for the very best weavers, the very finest Montecristi hats, has been like a quest for the Holy Grail. More often than not, the Monty Python version.

I touched my first Montecristi hat in 1988. I felt the thinness between my fingers, weighed it in my palms, held it up to the sun to see the concentric rings in the glowing crown, examined it closely all over admiring the weave texture. I did the same with several dozen other hats, one at a time, until I reached the bottom of the stack. Then I asked, meekly and respectfully, “May I have some more, sir? Finer than those?”

I had fallen in love with Montecristi hats.

As with anyone who becomes enthralled by a subject, I wanted to learn everything I could about Montecristi hats. I begged to be allowed to see all the stages of preparing straw and weaving Montecristi hats, all the stages of the artisan finishing. Don Rosendo Delgado was my mentor, my “father” in Montecristi hats. He was always kind and patient, always generous with his knowledge. He knew my Spanish was almost nonexistent, so he would point to to the pickup truck and I would climb into the back, having no clue where we might be going. Sometimes he took me to a weaver’s house so I could see and photograph the weaving process. Sometimes he took me to a rematadora’s house so I could see how the back weave is done. Sometimes he took me to watch an artisan do his work. Once he took me to a funeral.

Being interested in the finest examples of the art of Montecristi, it was natural for me to be interested in the finest artists of Montecristi, the best weavers. So Don Rosendo took me to Pile. And there I fell in love, not just with the hats, but with the people who weave them.

The weavers of Pile weave the very finest Montecristi hats, as they have for generations. As it became my mission to try to keep alive the art of fine hat weaving, it became my mission to try to make fine hat weaving a more desirable occupation.

I have tried, in my own small way, to help improve quality of life for weavers in Pile. I am just a tiny one-person business, and not even a very profitable one, but it is better to do just a little than to do nothing at all. So, when possible, my business and foundation have brought a little bit of free medical care to Pile, free eye exams and glasses, a town party many years ago, free respirators to protect weavers from sulfur fumes when they bleach the straw (I would be seriously surprised if any weavers use them), higher hat prices paid to weavers, unprecedented commissions to weavers when the finest hats are sold, and a weaving school.

This year, The Montecristi Foundation, Inc. will launch a new program to certify as Master Weavers the weavers of the finest hats. We will launch the program with 3 different levels. Maestro Tejedor Certificado recognizes weavers who can weave hats with weave counts of 30x30 and higher. Maestro Tejedor Superior recognizes weavers who can weave hats 40x40 and higher. Maestro Tejedor Cumbre recognizes weavers who can weave hats 50x50 and higher. At present, only Simón will be awarded Maestro Tejedor Cumbre. Master Weavers will receive framed certificates similar to university diplomas. I will send you a photo of the prototype when it is completed later this week.

The program will have two primary goals.

First, it is important to give respect and recognition to the weavers for being the creators of the finest examples of an art recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World. Even when UNESCO awarded the designation in 2012, no one gave any recognition to the weavers themselves. Lots of media stories about the hats of Ecuador, but no cash awards or ticker tape parades for weavers. I expect they would prefer cash awards and ticker tape parades, but being recognized as Master Weavers is a beginning.

Second, it is hoped that having the official designation of Maestro Tejedor will help the weavers to sell their hats more easily and for higher prices.

I am working on the text for the certificates and the design. I leave for Montecrsti on Sunday. I hope to take with me the first certificates. Patricia will receive Maestro Tejedor Certificado. Fausto, the other teacher, and Manuel, Fausto’s brother and Patricia’s husband, will receive Maestro Tejedor Superior. Simón will receive Maestro Tejedor Cumbre. Other weavers will receive certificates as soon as I can make them.

i also hope to work with Manuel and Patricia to create a straw-making operation to ensure that the weavers can receive excellent quality straw to use to weave their hats. Weavers now pay about $30 to $40 for enough straw to weave a hat. If I can provide the straw at no charge, then I will be increasing the income of the weavers by reducing their expenses. Also, wears do not have much money, so they often cannot buy all at once the straw needed to weave a hat. They have to buy half at the beginning and the other half later. But that means the second time they get straw, it was not made from the same plants and at the same time as the first straw they bought. So the straw is likely to be a little different in color sand other factors. It is ether if all the straw in a hat is made at the same time.

3) People in Pile say that in this town are the most and the best weavers in Ecuador, not in Montecristi, not in Jipijapa, not in Las Pampas. You now the whole area really well. Do you agree with this appreciation of the Pile inhabitants?

It is wonderful that they are expressing pride in their art and their village. I do not know if there are more weavers in Pile than in Las Pampas. I would have thought there are more in Las Pampas. I doubt there are any weavers at all in the city of Montecristi. Jipijapa? Are there still weavers in Jipijapa? In the 19th century, Jipijapa rivaled Montecristi as a center for hat production, but I am not sure if there is still any significant production there. It would be great to revive interest, and production. Did you know that Panama hats produced in Mexico (Yucatan) are not called Panama hats? They are called Jipijapas. There are weavers in El Aromo ad San Lorenzo. Semi-calados are woven in Aguas Nuevas.

4) In your own words, from your heart, why do you think it was necessary to teach young people of Pile the art of weaving "sombreros finos y superfinos"?

My mission has been to try to keep alive the art of Montecristi. To me, the highest expression of the art is in the very finest hats, hats that are so finely woven as to seem impossible. Those hats are woven in Pile. If I hope for there to be finely woven hats ten years, or fifty years, from now, the the logical place for them to be woven is Pile.

The weavers of Pile have created the very finest hats for generations. Weaving the very finest hats is the tradition, the inheritance, perhaps even the DNA of Pile. Young people in Pile are aware of the tradition. Some take pride in it. Many have family members who weave fine hats. They have seen these miracles. They know what they are. It seems to me that there is more hope for success in a new generation learning to weave the finest hats in Pile, where they already have the tradition, than there would be in attracting a new generation to learn to create this almost impossible art in a village where they do not already have a tradition of fine hat weaving. Pile has more than a hundred years of momentum. It is hoped that the families of Pile will be supportive of the idea of their children becoming fine weavers. We see families in which being a physician, or a policeman, or a wine maker is a family tradition, passed from generation to generation. In Pile, the there are many families with a family tradition of being weavers. Simón is the best weaver in Pile (and therefore in the world). His father was also was known to be one of the best weavers in a village of exceptional weavers. Simón’s children have demonstrated exceptional skills. Perhaps there is a genetic component of why the finest hats are woven in Pile.

If you wish to train a new generation of great boat builders, you would have more chance of success in a coastal town than in a desert town. If you want to keep a tradition alive, it makes more sense to focus one’s efforts where the tradition already exists.

I have done my best to bring media recognition, and a measure of fame, to Simón. His economic success, as a consequence of his weaving skill, is obvious to other weavers. I hope that other weavers will see Simón's success and it will inspire them to work to be as good, to achieve similar recognition and respect, to earn similar income from weaving. “If he can do it, I can do it.”

The weaving school in Pile provides an opportunity to the kids who see Simón’s success to learn to weave themselves, possibly to become the next Simón, the next truly great weaver. I hope Simón will be their Pele, their Maradona, their hero. And to equal or surpass Simón's success will become their goal.

There is another weaving school in Pile. That school was overseen and guided for the first few years by a consultant in Quito. She was quoted to me as having said that the biggest problem with hat production in Pile is that the hats take too long to weave, and that it was her goal, and the goal of the school, to speed up hat weaving in Pile. Really? If true, that is truly alarming. The obvious way to speed up the weaving process is to weave hats with less fine straw. I know of no other way. If the goal of the other school is to teach weavers to weave with less fine straw, to weave hats that are less finely woven, then the goal of the other school is to end Pile’s tradition of weaving the very finest hats. Surely she was misquoted.

The goal of Escuela Alma de Paja Toquilla is to continue the tradition of Pile, the tradition of weaving the most finely woven hats in the history of planet earth. Perhaps even to weave the most finely woven hats in the history of Pile, to surpass the achievements of previous generations of Pile weavers.

The challenge will be to create a market for those hats. To find buyers eager to own the finest examples of the art of Montecristi. And willing to pay prices commensurate with the time and talent required to weave such hats. In order for the art to survive, the artists must be appropriately compensated so that they will want to weave. So that they will want their children to weave.

It is true that Simón wove fewer hats each year, and now he weaves only 2 hats per year, and not always that many. His weaving did become finer in the beginning, but now his hats are not as finely woven, meaning the weave counts are lower. Of course, the incredible hat he wove in 2013, completed in February 2014, is the finest hat ever woven. But other hats have been about the same weave counts as hats woven by Manuel and Fausto. There are two hats Simón has woven in the past year that I have not seen. Perhaps they are as fine as earlier hats. I may have to lower the price of some of his hats. This is for background only, for you, and I do not think it is appropriate to report to the public.

Simón was already the best weaver in Pile when I first met him, referred by Don Rosendo. I did not make him the best weaver. I brought his talents to public attention and did my best to encourage him and to see that he is rewarded well.

The weavers of Pile are not a reliable source for retail market information. What do you, or they, mean by “great quality?” Yes, I would assume there are hats sold for $600 or $800 in Montecristi. I have paid higher prices for unblocked hats. Do you and they mean unblocked hats sold to dealers like me by dealers in Montecristi? To know the prices dealers in Montecristi sell hats for, you should talk to the dealers in Montecristi. You should also assume they might not tell you the truth.

I sold a Manuel hat this year for $12,500. The Manuel hat was about the same weave count as a Simón hat sold to the same buyer for $25,000. I am just now completing a Fausto hat for a client in Switzerland, and the price is $10,000. When I am in Pile soon, I will encourage both Manuel and Fausto to weave hats with weave counts above 50, if they can. I will encourage them to weave hats as fine as Simón’s, perhaps finer if Simón is relaxing his desire to be the best.

There were hats sold by other dealers for $20,000 to $30,000 before I ever sold a hat for such a high price.

There is a dealer in Chicago who has sold at least one hat for $20,000, and it was not a Simón hat. A dealer in Santa Fe has sold at least one hat for $30,000.

Charlie Sheen purchased a Simón hat in 2008 for $25,000. Simón received $10,000. $5000 was divided among the artisans who worked on the hat. I built a water project in Pile. And I commissioned Simón to weave the finest hat he had ever woven.

Photo of Charlie Sheen hat below

In 2009, a king purchased 21 hats, each priced between $10,000 and $25,000. The hats were gifts to 3 recipients. Netscape and WebMD founder, Jim Clark, purchased a hat for $13,000 that year. And an Italian CEO of a multi-national company purchased a Simón hat for $25,000 that year.

Photo of Italian CEO hat below

An attorney in the Houston area purchased two Simón hats some years ago.

There is a very, very small market for such hats. And you must remember that my hats are sold only by Internet. My hats are not in any retail stores anywhere in the world. So, someone who is buying such a hat from me is buying a hat he cannot see, feel, or try on. I am gratified to have created a website and to have earned a reputation that allows clients to have sufficient trust and confidence that they are willing to pay such high prices for a straw hat they cannot see, feel, or try on.

To the best of my knowledge, I am the only seller of very high priced Montecristi hats who has made any effort to see that the weavers receive a more equitable share of the retail market price of their hats. When I sell a hat woven by Fausto, Manuel, Simón, and other Master Weavers, I pay a substantial commission to the weaver, above and beyond the price I already paid to buy the hat.

This year, I have paid single-hat commissions of $3000, $4000, $7000, and expect to pay soon another commission of $3300. Manuel was recently offered $1500 for one of his hats. He declined the offer because he wanted his hat to be with me and to have a chance to win a good commission. I encouraged him to take the offer. We have a saying in English: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The cash price Manuel and I had already agreed to was lower than the offer. Yes, I might sell his hat and the commission would give him a much higher total price. But maybe something happens to the hat (sometimes, they suddenly get spots and discolored straw and are not worth top prices), or maybe I don’t ever find a buyer. My goal is to do my best to help the weavers. If they can sell a hat for more than I can pay, then I am happy for them to sell to someone else.

2 Morning Calm interview

Morning Calm

Answers to interview questions

Why did you decide to become a hatter after 25 years as an advertising writer and creative director?

I worked in advertising from 1972 until 2001, in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, all of which were too cold. I moved to Hawaii in 1987, and stayed here. Warm at last. Warm at last. Thank God Almighty, I am warm at last.

In 1988, while Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather Honolulu, I traveled solo to Montecristi on an “adventure” vacation. I had read the book The Panama Hat Trail and thought it would be interesting to go see the hats I had read about. I had never seen or felt a Montecristi hat.

I spoke maybe 20 words of Spanish. No one in Montecristi spoke any English. So it was, in fact, an adventure.

The book I read had mentioned Rosendo Delgado as the largest hat dealer in Montecristi, so I found his house and asked to see some hats.

When I touched my first Montecristi hat, it touched me back. I had not expected to have such a visceral response to a hat. Instantly, I understood why Montecristi hats have been so highly prized for more than two centuries by kings, emperors, and anyone else who could find them and afford them.

Sr. Delgado and others told me that each year there were fewer weavers and fewer hats. The art was dying.

I reasoned that if weavers were weaving fewer hats, it must be because buyers were buying fewer hats. Simple economics: if people show up with stacks of money, other people will show up with stacks of hats. In order to increase supply, increase demand. Perhaps my years of marketing experience might enable me to increase the market for Montecristi hats, which would increase demand and, in theory, supply.

Tom Miller, author of The Panama Hat Trail, also had reported that the art was dying. The leading Montecristi hat dealer in Guayaquil predicted it would be extinct within twenty years. I decided that I would do my best to make sure that his prediction would not come true. Twenty-three years later, the art is, in many ways, healthier than it was in 1988. It seems likely that the prediction itself was a major factor in causing the prediction not to come true.

During my week in Montecristi, I bought as many hats as I could afford and took them back to Honolulu. No clue what I would actually do with the unblocked hat bodies to turn them into marketable hats, nor how I would sell them. I did not quit my day job.

By coincidence, one of the top executives of O&M Honolulu had left the agency to launch a men’s tropical clothing retail business, with shops in some of the resort hotels here in Hawaii. I handed him one of those very first hats I brought back from Montecristi. It was unblocked, no style, no ribbon, just a hat body. He also fell in love with Montecristi hats and was on fire to offer them in his shops. A lucky break for my would-be hat business – a client.

The hat business was created in order to try to save the art, not to try to make money. I have had some success in trying to save the art, and great success in not making money.

Where and how did you learn the skill of making a Panama hat? And what was the most difficult part of the journey until you achieved the skill?

It was difficult to find anyone who could turn my Montecristi hat bodies into marketable hats. I visited a hat shop in Honolulu and asked if they could do it. No.

I started calling hat shops on the US mainland. The next lesson I learned was that not everyone who claimed to be able to block and finish a Montecristi hat could do it well. I learned to send only one hat as a test, for two reasons. One, almost all of them came back more or less ruined. No need to ruin ten hats to discover the person didn’t know what s/he was doing. Two, some never came back, as I fell victim to a few dishonest shopkeepers who saw an opportunity to get free Montecristi hats from some fool in Hawaii.

Finally, I found a hatter in San Francisco, now retired, who knew how to properly block and finish Montecristi hats. I worked with him for several years, until he became too difficult to work with. The quality of his blocking also had begun to decline. Meanwhile, I still had not quit my day job.

That first client was doing well with his tropical clothing stores and had expanded. He now had shops on most of the Hawaiian islands. I persuaded a few more shops in resort hotels to offer my hats and had established a fairly reasonable business.

Over the next several years, I worked with about a dozen hat blockers on the US mainland, with varying degrees of success. I often found myself trying to make adjustments to hats that had not been well blocked.

One hatter in Nashville had simply stacked my blocked and finished hats in tall boxes and shipped them. There was nothing at all by way of packing materials to hold the hats in place inside the boxes. The predictable result was that, between Nashville and Honolulu, the hats just tumbled around every which way in the boxes and arrived looking like they’d been in a bar fight and lost badly. Naturally, I called the hatter and asked why he had not packed the hats properly. He answered, “I took them to the post office myself and told them to be careful with the boxes.” Right. Not a good packing strategy. I never sent any more hats to that blocker.

Some blockers made my beautiful hats so stiff with lacquer that they could have been used as salad bowls, or possibly worn in construction zones in lieu of a hardhat. Some had used staples to hold the bows together. Others had glued the ribbons to the straw, instead of hand sewing them. Certainly faster, but hardly as elegant. Some hats came back with barely any style shape at all, and I wondered if the hatter had simply tried to talk them into assuming a particular style shape, rather than blocking them into the shape.

What I was learning was that the art of hand blocking Montecristi hats successfully was, perhaps, even nearer to extinction than the weaving. Finally, in 2002, I decided the only way to have Montecristi hats properly blocked, styled, and finished to the highest standards was to learn to do it myself.

I would need equipment and a teacher. I learned that the Nashville hatter with the minimalist packing techniques had passed away recently. I spoke with his widow and offered to buy the contents of the hat shop. We reached an agreement. I went to Nashville in May, paid her, and shipped all the stuff back to Hawaii.

That was just a small beginning to the acquisition of blocks (to shape the crowns), flanges (to shape the brims), and other equipment and tools needed to achieve the styles and quality I wanted. I have purchased old blocks and flanges when I could find them and have had new ones custom made when I haven’t been able to find what I needed.

As with finding good hatters to block my hats, finding good craftsmen to make hat blocks has been an ongoing challenge. I’ve been amazed by some of the lopsided, misshapen horrors I’ve received, which the makers claimed to be the hat blocks I had requested. How could they think anyone would want a hat that looked like those blocks? Even a blind person could tell by feel that those blocks were nothing better than large ugly paperweights. None were quite ugly enough to pass as some form of modern sculpture, so those I did not return to their creators along with an angry letter, I just threw away.

After stopping in Nashville to buy equipment, I traveled on to Springfield, Massachusetts to enroll in “blocking school.” The best of the various blockers I had worked with over the years was retiring and had agreed to teach me how to block my hats. I had waited until well into May before leaving Hawaii to make the trip. I did not want any risk of cold weather. I didn’t even own a winter coat. Don’t need one in Hawaii. Even so, astonishingly, unbelievably, it snowed while I was in Springfield, the latest snowfall in recorded history for that city. I did not celebrate my good fortune in being there for the historic event.

During my week of training, I was shocked to discover how physically demanding it is to block Montecristi hats. In the years since, my hands, arms, and shoulders have become much stronger than when I first began to block my own hats.

I have learned more from real-world experience than I ever learned from my training.

Please explain in detail the whole process of launching your own hat brand, from the initial preparation period to the final launching in 1988.

After returning from Montecristi with several dozen hats and a vague notion of starting some sort of business, an advertising colleague had suggested the name The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific. Seemed like a reasonably good name. (Actually, it wasn’t.) Art directors at O&M helped create a company logo, letterhead, envelopes, business cards, and so on. Plus a logo for “Genuine Montecristi” to be used in the marketing materials. Good stuff. We won some local design awards. I had some hat leathers (sweatbands) made to go into my hats, and a brand was born. This was all in 1988.

Calling on my advertising experience and resources, materials were created for my retail store clients to use to help sell the hats. Brochures, certificates of authenticity, in-store posters and displays. The posters were perennial gold medal winners in the Hawaii advertising and design shows.

Over the next decade, as my reputation grew, I realized that no one ever remembered the company name, the brand name. “Panama hat” was about all anyone ever remembered. My company was often referred to as “that Panama hat guy in Hawaii.”

In 1993, Cigar Aficionado magazine published a lengthy article about my efforts to save the art of Montecristi. It was very complimentary. The writer did an excellent job. Okay, I wrote it myself. The byline on the article attributed authorship to the then owner of Worth & Worth, a hat shop in New York. He had interviewed me and had written a draft that was so horrible I refused to consent to its submission. So I wrote my own story and allowed him to claim the credit. His primary contribution was to edit out all information that might allow a reader to contact me, ensuring that anyone interested in my hats would have to buy them from him.

In 1995, I wrote the Preface to Panama, a legendary hat published in French, English, and Spanish by Editions Assouline in Paris. An excellent book with beautiful photos, it is still in print, now in its second edition. Not surprisingly, the French author for the French publisher attributes the fame, fashion, and popularity of Panama hats to the French. My own research suggests that may not be entirely accurate.

I decided to change the company name. I was in Montecristi, buying more hats from Rosendo Delgado a couple of years after the publication of Panama, a legendary hat. I was examining stacks of Montecristi hats, deciding which ones to buy, when a video production crew from France arrived to interview Don Rosendo. They were making a documentary about Panama hats for French TV.

I continued my labor of love as they videotaped their interview, asking Don Rosendo the usual questions about Panama hats, and about Montecristi hats specifically. My Spanish skills had not improved much since my first visit nearly ten years earlier (still haven’t), but I could follow the general direction of the interview. At one point, they asked if I was a client. He answered yes, his biggest client. They asked if I was an American; it’s pretty obvious, even if I don’t speak. He said yes, from Hawaii. They asked if my name was Brent Black. When he answered yes, they stopped the cameras and began to talk among themselves in French. Despite four years of high school French, my French was little better than my Spanish, which I’d learned by playing audio tapes in my car, but I did hear my name several times. As best I could translate, they were familiar with my name and were excited that their own visit had coincided with mine.

They finished their conference. The director came over to where I was sitting near the door where the light was good. She asked, in English, if they could interview me when they finished with Don Rosendo. I agreed, of course. The tri-lingual director reminded me of a joke.

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual.

What do you call someone who peaks two languages? Bi-lingual.

What do you call someone who speaks only one language? American.

They finished with Don Rosendo then interviewed me. Afterwards, I decided to change my brand from The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific, Inc. to Brent Black. Shorter. More memorable. I stopped printing The Panama Hat Co. of The Pacific, Inc, on my sweatbands and in my promotional materials. I designed a logo for Brent Black. My current logo combines my name with my initials, BBB. The BBB in the logo reproduces my actual hand-written signature, done with a felt tip marker.

Up until 2002, I had sold my hats, wholesale only, to retail shops in Hawaii, California, Washington D.C. and Italy. I consider 2002, not 1988, the year I truly launched my brand. In 2002, I became a brand new company that was fourteen years old. Everything changed.

The Internet had become a global phenomenon. The .com bubble had inflated and burst. When the bubble burst, so did my job. I was employed by a .com company riding the wave, its owners hoping to make fortunes from the new craze. Like the fool in the fable, telling the emperor he wasn’t actually wearing any clothes, I had been telling my bosses for most of a year that they didn’t actually have a product and, eventually, they would be found out. They were wrong about their anticipated fortunes. I was right that the company would fail.

That was one time I had hoped to be wrong. They were paying me a small fortune to help make them look like they had a product so they could take their stock to market and fill their bathtubs with champagne. The only “pop” they heard was the .com bubble breaking not champagne corks flying.

In my year with that company, I had learned a lot about this new frontier of the Internet. Despite the crash, I knew it was here to stay. I decided not to seek another job in advertising, but to give the hats my full attention. So, I bought hat-making forms and equipment, learned to do my own blocking, and launched a website.

The website had been intended, originally, as an online reference library for Montecristi hats. It did not seem likely that people would be willing to pay $500 and up, way up, for hats they could not see, feel, or try on.

I had known for many years that the best way to increase sales of Montecristi hats is to increase consumer knowledge of Montecristi hats. The more they know, the better they understand how special they are and why they cost so much. Consequently, the more they want to wear one. This strategy had been proven by the marketing materials used in the retail stores that sold my hats.

The book that changed my life, The Panama Hat Trail, had very little information about Montecristi hats and, as I had discovered over the years, most of it was inaccurate. Panama, a legendary hat dealt more with the history of Panama hats than with celebrating and documenting the art of Montecristi hats. There was simply no good source material available for would-be aficionados of Montecristi hats. I would have to create it myself and publish it in my website on the Internet.

Beginning with my first visit to Montecristi in 1988, I had been trying to learn everything possible about Montecristi hats. I went to the small villages where the hats are woven, spending hours watching, and photographing, the weavers as they worked their magic. I hiked into the jungle to see where and how the plants were cut to make the straw. I watched every detail of the process of converting the plant material into straw for the weavers. I asked questions, thousands of questions.

It soon became clear why most of the material in the books and magazine articles was not very accurate. The same questions, put to different people, yielded different answers. The same questions, put to the same person at different times, yielded different answers. Oh my. Not good.

Over the years, I had brought reporters, documentary video teams, and curious travelers to Montecristi to learn about the legendary hats. There was nowhere I wouldn’t go, nothing I wouldn’t do, to learn every detail of the process of making Montecristi hats.

There was nothing in my background to explain why I had become so focused on, so obsessed with, Montecristi hats. I had earned my bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, believing I was on my way to becoming a cardio-vascular surgeon. Obviously, I changed my career plans. I enjoyed my 29 years as an advertising writer, creative director, producer, director, photographer, designer, etc., but had no clue I was training to become a hatter who would attempt to preserve an endangered art form in Ecuador.

Hardly a typical path to becoming a hatter. And not even a typical hatter at that. A Panama hatter only. Specifically, a Montecristi Panama hatter. A specialty within a specialty. Go figure.

I have but one explanation – the hats chose me. No, I’m not a New Age nutcase with a head full of woo-woo. I have no idea how the hats knew I was the one. No idea how, or why, they chose me. But choose me, they did. They not only chose me, they took over my life, became my mission, perhaps even my religion. Somehow, the hats knew when I arrived in Montecristi that first day, 23 years ago, that I was the one, the perfect storm of susceptibilities, talents, and obsessive personality traits. The one who might save them. Perhaps they did not wait for me to arrive. Perhaps they summoned me. Yes, I know how weird it sounds that anyone might actually believe that sort of blather. But here I am 23 years later, having borne witness as the hats ate my life (it only gets worse as the years go by), and I have no other explanation. The hats chose me.

When I began to write my website, I had earned a very good living as a professional writer for nearly thirty years. As I wrote I realized that, for the first time, I was writing in my own natural voice. I was my own client. I wrote in the first person because it was more comfortable, and because most people would prefer to do business with a person, rather than a company.

A friend agreed to write the code for my site and put it on the Internet. He also persuaded me to buy a toll free phone number, find a credit card processor, and post retail prices for the hats so I could accept orders. I thought it was a waste of time and effort, but I did as he urged. He was right. I was wrong. Three years later, I began to resign my wholesale clients.

My business never would have survived had I continued to pay other people to block my hats, and continued to sell them wholesale. The prices of the hats themselves have increased dramatically over the years. That is a good thing, and I have made a purposeful effort to pay higher prices. There is a lengthy discussion on my website of my strategy to raise prices paid to weavers in order to help make weaving a more desirable occupation. I pay weavers unprecedented commissions when the very finest hats are sold, and the best weaver is now the richest person in his village. Again, simple economics: if one wants people to do something, pay them well. When weavers in the village see the economic success of the best weavers, they have motivation to weave better themselves.

Borsalino offers some factory made Montecristi hats that retail for about $1300. The hats themselves are comparable to my $700 hats. The blocking and finishing of my hats is far superior. Borsalino uses a grosgrain ribbon as a sweatband. In a $1300 hat!? Personally, I think that’s outrageous. I also custom size my hats. Borsalino’s pricing is correct as a business model. My prices are much too low.

There are only a couple of other hatters in the US whose blocking and finishing I respect and consider to be comparable in quality to my own. Both charge much higher prices than I. No doubt they are smarter.

One of the most common “tricks” in the global market place is for retailers to sell hats represented to be Montecristi hats, which are not Montecristi hats. Lock Hatters in London was selling very low quality Cuenca hats, which they falsely represented to be Montecristi hats. I bought one myself and confirmed that it was a fraud. I saw on their website that Strand Hatters in Sydney was doing the same. When I objected, both hatters removed the misrepresented Cuenca hats from their websites (so I could no longer see them), but I do not know if they stopped the practice in their stores. Sadly, misrepresenting Cuenca hats to be Montecristi hats is not at all unusual. Retail shoppers simply do not know the difference and trust the retailers to tell the truth.

Lock Hatters told me they had “bought the hats in good faith.” So they were claiming that no one on their staff could tell the difference between a low grade Cuenca brisa weave hat and a genuine Montecristi hat. Lock was established in 1776. I could teach a ten year old how to tell the difference in about ten minutes. But no one at Lock can learn how in 234 years? I think their attorneys/solicitors advised there was less risk in claiming to be fools than in admitting to be frauds.

This part is just for background. I don’t really want to get into a legal contest with Lock and/or Strand. I did contact attorneys in Australia and inquired about the legal cost to file fraud charges and make Strand stop the misrepresentation. The rates quoted suggested that it would cost less to buy the shop and simply stop the practice when I became the new owner.

This practice of misrepresenting Cuenca hats to be Montecristi hats is, in my judgment, the single greatest factor accounting for the near extinction of Montecristi hats. Well, maybe second largest, following the precipitous global decline in hat wearing over the past 50 years.

Exporters in Cuenca are real businesses with factories and employees. The largest export thousands and thousands of hats annually, even now. Hat dealers in Montecristi are home-based small family businesses. The current total annual production of Montecristi hats is estimated to be about 2000 hats.

It is not unusual for exporters in Cuenca to misrepresent Cuenca hats to be Montecristi hats. I have export documents that show the misrepresentation of Cuenca hats to be Montecristi hats. I also have Cuenca hats with “Montecristi” permanently marked into the straw on the inside of the hats. The Cuenca hats can be sold at lower prices than genuine Montecristi hats, so they appeal to buyers in the US, UK, and elsewhere. Certainly, some large buyers outside of Ecuador knowingly buy Cuenca hats and knowingly misrepresent them to their retailer clients to be Montecristi hats. And probably some retailers knowingly buy Cuenca hats and knowingly misrepresent them to their customers to be Montecristi hats. Others may simply be unwitting dupes.

Through these various fraudulent business practices, Cuenca hats have stolen the majority of the market for Montecristi hats. If these practices could be stopped, and prevented in the future, the market for genuine Montecristi hats would probably double or triple almost overnight. If everyone who wanted to buy, or who thought he was buying, a genuine Montecristi were, in fact, buying a genuine Montecristi, then the art might have a chance to survive.

So, I have been working for some years now to address this problem. I hired attorneys in Ecuador and applied for Denomination of Origin status/protection for Montecristi hats. A representative from WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) of the UN traveled to Montecristi to research the process of making the hats and determined that they did qualify for DO protection. The government body regulating intellectual property in Ecuador approved the application and passed a resolution in 2008 granting DO protection to the hats, the first ever DO granted in Ecuador.

A good first step, but meaningless until I can establish a certification system for Montecristi hats so that buyers can easily recognize a certified genuine Montecristi hat. I have worked with a company in Florida which has created for me a laser engraving device to indelibly mark the certified hats with a visual symbol plus a serial number. That laser engraving device is in transit to me right now, and I received a phone call to advise me it will be delivered tomorrow.

I will want to experiment with it. Then I would need to hire more attorneys and apply to the IEPI in Ecuador to certify the hats in Montecristi. A board of experts would be created in Montecristi to approve hats as genuine and permit them to be certified. An independent security company (probably SGS) would be hired to supervise the certification process to prevent counterfeiting. Naturally, I would have to ship the laser engraving device to Montecristi and train someone to operate it.

I am also researching an electronic device used in the textile industry called an automatic pick counter. It is hoped that this pick counter can automatically count the weave of Montecristi hats in a small fraction of the time required to count by eye and by hand the weave of Montecristi hats. If this is successful, then an “official” weave count would be determined for each hat to be certified and that count would be included in the information indelibly engraved/burned into each hat.

I have invested $10,000 of my own money in the laser engraver and will spend another $4000 for the automatic pick counter (made by TextTest AG in Switzerland). Because the goal of my company is to save the art, not just to sell hats, I am working in areas no one else even thinks about.

Another, huge, part of my brand is the philosophy behind the brand. How I relate to, and work with, the weavers. Much of this information is already available on my website: http://www.brentblack.com/pages/aboutus_business_practices.html

How many hats do you make annually? And how many hours a day do you devote to making hats?

Hand blocking is a laborious, difficult, time-consuming process. At least it is the way I do it. Detailed description available at: http://www.brentblack.com/pages/tour2_page_15.html

I can only hand block 350 to 400 hats per year, so that is the practical limit to the number of hats I can sell.

I am planning some major changes for my brand. I generally buy 500 to 600 Montecristi hats each year, or about 25% of total production. I buy about 90% of total production of the very finest hats. Since my goal is to increase demand for the hats by buying more hats myself, I must be able to sell more hats in order to increase my own demand.

In February of this year, I spent some time in Cuenca experimenting with a hydraulic hat press to see if Montecristi hats can be successfully pressed and styled to my quality standards. My conclusion is that a press can do the shaping beautifully if operated by an artist with patience and uncompromising standards. The people I watched did not make hats that met my standards, but I saw that it definitely would be possible if I could find the right person to operate the press.

I have watched how hats are pressed by the exporters in Cuenca. Generally speaking, they stamp them out one after another, fairly quickly, without a great deal of attention paid to artistic perfection. It’s more about quantity and price than quality and art.

So, I have decided to buy the best press available and operate it myself. I believe I can increase the number of hats per year I can make, without compromising quality. The great majority of my clients purchase hats priced between $500 and $2000. I believe that hats of those qualities can be shaped on a press without compromising the hats. In the past, I have sent Montecristi hats to be pressed by hat makers used to much lower quality hats, and they would destroy a significant percentage of my hats. My own press would be dedicated exclusively to Montecristi hats and would be calibrated accordingly. Less pressure, more time per hat.

I would continue to block by hand the very finest hats.

At present, my time must be split among making hats, shipping hats, taking orders, keeping up with email, accounting, and all the various aspects of marketing (such as answering interview questions and researching photographs). I have no employees. I do everything myself. I wrote my website myself. I did most of the photos myself, and much of the design. Even the ads for my hats are written, photographed, and art directed by me. http://www.brentblack.com/pages/aboutus_making_ads_for_hats.html

Pretty crazy workload. During the busy summer season, between April and October, it nearly kills me to try to keep up with everything. I generally work seven days per week, usually 10 to 14 hours per day.

10 hours in a day is about my limit for blocking. It is too demanding physically to go longer. I probably average 35 to 40 hours per week during the busy season. Maybe another 20 to 30 hours per week doing other business things. By August, I can become rather cranky and curmudgeonly.

One of the things I hate most is clients who call and email to ask how their hats are coming. I have 40 or 50 hats in the “system” at any given time. If all of those clients call or email once a week to check on their hats, and if I can take care of each inquiry in only 15 minutes, then I’m spending 10 to 12 hours per week giving status reports. I am happy that my clients are eager to have their hats, but their hats will ship sooner if they are quietly patient.

My favorite clients are the ones who say, “No hurry. Take as much time as you need to get it right. I am looking forward to wearing a beautiful work of art.”

Many clients seem to think “custom made” means I take a finished manufactured hat off a shelf just for them. No, I actually have to block, style, and finish each hat by hand. We live in a world of mass-produced products, and in an age of expected instant gratification. Most clients have no comprehension of what I do. On some days, I have no comprehension of why I do it.

Most of the time, I remember why I do it. I do it so others can share the wonder and joy I experienced when I saw and held my first Montecristi hat. The three most frequent comments I get from clients after they receive their first Montecristi hat are: 1. I love it! 2. It is even better than I expected! 3. It weighs almost nothing! Probably number 4 would be: I want another one!

Consumer warning: My hats can be quite addictive.

Please explain about your employees (weavers) and your workroom.

The weavers are not my employees. I have gone to great lengths to encourage the weavers to become totally independent of the buyers and to retain complete control of their art. The normal practice was for a buyer to pay a weaver a little at a time as the weaver wove a hat. When the hat was completed, the weaver had already received most of the pay for it, had no bargaining position with that buyer, and could not offer it to other buyers. I have changed that.

I have urged weavers to become independent contractors, free agents, obligated to no specific buyer, including me. When a weaver completes a beautiful hat, I hope s/he will offer it to me first. If I will not meet his/her price expectations, s/he is free to offer the hat to other buyers and to sell it for the highest price. That’s what I would want if I were a weaver.

Other buyers deal with the weavers, when negotiating prices for their hats, as if they are adversaries and the goal is to beat down the price as low as possible. I view the weavers as my teammates, not my adversaries. They are my business. They are the future of my business. They are the artists who create the art I hope to preserve. They are my heroes.

I pay to make wood forms for the weavers to use for weaving their hats. I give the forms to the weavers at no cost. The weavers are under no obligation to sell hats woven on those forms to me. My goal is to empower the weavers, not to indenture them.

I provide free sulfur powder to the weavers, something they all need. I have provided free safety masks to protect their lungs and eyes from the sulfur fumes. I have tried for several years to hire someone to make high quality straw for the weavers; no luck on that one. I have paid for eye doctors and free eyeglasses for the weavers. I have established and funded a weaving school in the village, with no tuition.

I have many competitors when it comes to selling Montecristi hats, especially if we include those selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. I have no competitors when it comes to helping the weavers and their families.

There is one very minor buyer and seller of Montecristi hats who loudly and constantly criticizes everything I do, and also criticizes me for not doing enough. I don’t understand. Why does someone who is doing nothing to help the weavers criticize another for not doing enough?

Simón Espinal is the best weaver alive, probably the best weaver in history. I buy all of his hats, so he probably comes the closest to being an employee. When we first began to work together, Simón lived in one room of his parents’ house. It had a dirt floor and a ceiling about five feet high. He lived in that room with his wife and three children. He could not support himself and his family by weaving, even though he is the best in the world. He also worked on a fishing boat. He reports that sometimes they did not have enough to eat.

I promised to pay double the price he normally received for his hats if he would agree to stop working on the fishing boat and weave full time. He happily agreed. I promised that I would make him famous as an artist, that I would sell his hats for $25,000 each, that I would pay him unheard of commissions for those hats, and that someday people would come to his door and offer to pay thousands of dollars each for his hats. Simón nodded politely, and didn’t believe a word of it.

I have kept all of my promises to Simón. He now lives in his own house. He has built a grand stairway to his house through the mud/dust that is his front “yard.” He has built a second story to his house. He even has satellite TV, so he can watch soccer games despite the terrible TV reception in his village. Best of all, he now has an indoor bathroom! Simón is rumored to be the richest person in his village.

I hope others will aspire to weave as well, and to live as well, as Simón.

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My workroom is in my home. In fact, 85% of the square footage of my home is used for the hats. My carport is stacked floor to ceiling with shipping boxes. There is still enough room for my car, but just barely. (My license plate reads: HATMAN.)

When one enters through the front door, the first things one sees are hat blocks and flanges on long shelves. Two of the three bedrooms are filled with hats and hat stuff. What would normally be the living room is an office filled with computers, printers, shipping boxes at the ready, and other hat things. It is immediately obvious I’m not married. When my sister visited a couple of years ago, she stopped in the front doorway and observed, “Oh my god, you live in a hat factory.”

The room where I do the blocking is a long room with windows on three sides. I have a wonderful view of ti plants, haleconia, palm trees, and a mango tree in my yard. Beyond is a small lake and mountains in the distance. Sure beats the hell out of working in an office cubicle under fluorescent lights.

here are many, many more hat blocks and flanges, a large TV, and a Bose sound system. I work alone for many hours at a time. I usually play music or movies to keep me company. I hear movies more than watch them. I favor older movies that rely on dialogue more than visual effects.

It is a very good room in which to work.

How did Brent Black begin to make a name for itself as a Panama hat brand? Was there any crucial moment for the brand to become famous?

As previously noted, I changed the brand from The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific to Brent Black when I realized that The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific was not becoming the least bit famous as a Panama hat brand. My company was becoming surprisingly well known for awesome Panama hats, but primarily as “the Panama hat guy in Hawaii.”

Launching the website and putting emphasis on “Brent Black” as the brand name was a major turning point for the company. The website has always had high rankings on Google and other search engines. Currently, my site is #1 in the unpaid listings for the search term “panama hats.”

In June 2005, my hats were named to the Best of the Best list by Robb Report. In November 2005, National Geographic published a short article about my efforts to save the art.

I think those two short pieces in prestigious publications probably gave my brand world class credibility and helped to attract additional media attention.

Do you have any interesting, memorable stories and anecdotes regarding your customers or celebrity clients?

When my hats were sold by Davidoff (cigars) in their Rodeo Drive store, Charlie Sheen bought one as a Father’s Day present for Martin Sheen, and later bought another 11 hats as “wrap party” (completion of filming of a movie) gifts. In 2008, he contacted me by email and purchased a $25,000 Classic Fedora. Huge commissions were paid to the weaver and other artisans who created the hat. Additional funds were used to build a water project for the village. So, despite his public persona and his adventures with the media, Charlie Sheen is, to me, a patron of the art of Montecristi and a do-gooder of the first order.

Most of my celebrity clients bought their hats in resort shops in Hawaii when I sold my hats wholesale. Pierce Brosnan bought a hat in a resort on Maui and subsequently called me directly to buy a second hat. He is an extraordinarily nice man. I was speaking with him by phone one day while he was in his condo on Kauai. He had to go answer the door or take another call or something and gave the phone over to his wife while she was cooking breakfast. Also an extremely nice person. At one point, she had to put the phone down because the eggs were burning. I could hear children in the room. I enjoyed being included in their domestic life for those few moments. I will always love them for that. They were nice people, just being nice people.

I once received a call from the administrative assistant of an ambassador who had seen one of my ads in Robb Report Collection. She inquired about the price of the hat in the ad, an Optimo with a special vintage ribbon. I explained that the hat in the ad had been sold for $12,000, the ribbon for $500. She said the ambassador wanted one just like it. Okay.

We talked about the very finest hats, their extremely limited availability, and prices between $10,000 and $25,000 each. I explained about my system of mailing sweatbands for clients to try on in order to choose the perfect custom fit. And that I would then block the hat to that exact size. She asked that I send the bands to the ambassador. Okay. I sent bands sized to 23 4/4, 23 7/8, 24, 24 1/8, and 24 ¼ inches. Fairly large sizes.

A couple of days later, she called again and asked that I email her photos of the various styles available in the very finest hats. I suggested her boss just look at the styles photos on my website. No, not possible. The ambassador doesn’t do Internet. Okay. I sent photos of seven style possibilities.

Meanwhile, they had returned the size bands and had chosen not one, but three sizes. I asked why they had chosen three different sizes. She explained that the ambassador wanted the hats as gifts for three people. All right. Three hats priced between $10,000 and $25,000 each? Yes. I decided that the ambassador and his assistant were my favorite people on earth.

I spoke with the ambassador a few times by phone, sometimes from his New York offices, sometimes from Greece and other far flung places. I learned that the gifts were to be from his king to the three people whose sizes I had been given. The identities of the three people were not disclosed.

First thing one morning, the assistant called, identified herself, and asked “Are you ready for this?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I haven’t had my coffee yet, but let’s go ahead, and I’ll take my chances.”

She said, “He wants to buy all seven styles.”

Whoa. “He wants seven hats priced between $10,000 and $25,000 each? Okay. I have three different sizes. Which styles does he want for which sizes?”

She laughed. “No, he wants all seven styles in each size.”

“He wants 21 hats, all priced between $10,000 and $25,000 each? You were right. I wasn’t ready for that.”

So I made and shipped 21 of the very finest Montecristi hats in the world. 4 hats were $25,000, another 5 were $20,000 or higher. No one else could possibly have filled that order. The three recipients were never disclosed, and I am not at liberty to identify the ambassador, nor his country (not Greece). I did explain that the purchase would be a huge good work for the weavers of the hats, and that he had just become the greatest single patron of the art of Montecristi, the Medici of Montecristi if you will. He asked for confidentiality and said they preferred to do things privately. Fine.

In December 2009, it rained commission money in the tiny village of Pile. I opened bank accounts for the weavers, in the nearest city with banks, so the money could be wired to them. They are illiterate so we had to find a bank that would allow them to open accounts using their thumbprints in lieu of signatures. Then, after I wired the funds to their accounts, the bank wouldn’t let them have the money. The bank could not imagine why these illiterate poor people from a tiny village about an hour out of the city had suddenly become relatively wealthy. And who is this guy in Hawaii who is sending these fortunes? I had to send a letter to the bank to explain that those illiterate poor people were among Ecuador’s greatest artists, the very finest living practitioners of the greatest art ever originated in Ecuador. I asked that they be given access to their money, an apology for their inconvenience, and perhaps some respect in that they were now large depositors.

The bank probably thought it was some sort of a drug deal, not unknown to happen in Andean nations of South America.

Simón built a second story on his house and an indoor bathroom. He bought new furniture. As noted above, he now has satellite TV. One of the hats had been woven by Simón’s wife, and two by his son. They also received large commissions.

The second best weaver bought new furniture and a truck. A third bought land next to his father’s house and built his own house. In all, six weavers received life-changing commissions. I am told that enthusiasm for weaving fine hats is now at an all time high in the village. That is my goal.

Brent Black’s Panama hats come in a very wide range of design. What are the most iconic, famous items among all?

I generally draw from classic Panama hat styles that I’ve seen in movies and historical photos, styles that have been around for decades, some for a century or more. I have no interest in following the whims of fashion, nor even in helping to create them. I am interested in style, not fashion. Fashion is arbitrary and temporary. Classic style is forever. My hats never go out of style. My Classic Fedora was my most popular style when I began in 1988, and it is still my most popular style, by far. Someone who buys one of my Classic Fedoras today could wear it twenty years from now. Heads would still turn, in admiration, not to snicker. A designer suit on the cutting edge of fashion today might very well be laughable three years from now.

The Optimo style, as worn by Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca is another timeless classic, and my second most popular style. A great part of the popularity of the Optimo is that it is the one style that can be rolled up with the least amount of devastation to the look and lines of the hat. I deplore the rolling of Panama hats but, if roll you must, the Optimo is the one to roll. Just turn down the brim, fold along the center crease, and roll loosely. I expect the Optimo style was created by people rolling Panama hats which caused center creases in them. May as well make blocks that already have the crease and call it a style.

When making hats, what do you think are the most important processes and techniques?

Easy. Relentless obsession with details. Unflinching refusal to compromise quality in any way. Stubborn persistence to do something over and over and over until it comes out right.

It is not good enough to get 99 out of 100 hats absolutely right. What about the client who gets the 100th hat? S/he doesn’t care that my previous 99 creations were perfect. S/he only has that one hat, which must also be perfect. I block and style the hats myself. I put my name in them. My name is my brand, and my name is my bond. If I am packing a hat to ship to the client and I see something I don’t love, the hat will not be shipped. If necessary, it will taken apart and begun over. As many times as needed to get it right. The price of the hat is irrelevant. Beautiful is beautiful. Not beautiful is not beautiful. Sometimes, I will put $5000 worth of labor into a $500 hat. Whatever it takes to get it right. Some go well, some are from hell.

I do the work myself. There is no one else to bless or to blame. If there is something wrong with your hat, it’s my fault. If it’s perfect, well, that’s business as usual. You can call me up and tell me what’s wrong, or how much you love it. If you buy a Stetson or a Borsalino, good luck trying to get someone named Stetson or Borsalino on the phone.

In 2005, travel writer Roff Smith authored a short article in National Geographic magazine about my work to save the art. He visited me in Hawaii and watched me block hats for a week. He saw me block one particular hat over and over and over, trying to resolve a particular point about which the hat and I disagreed. Eventually, I prevailed. Infinitely pleased with my victory over three-fourths of an ounce of woven straw, I showed off the hat to Roff. He nodded confirmation and commented, “Mate, you aren’t charging enough.” He’s right.

I’m the opposite of the Godfather. For me, it’s not just business, it’s personal. My tax accountant once commented, “You’re not in business with the hats; you’re in love with the hats.” Yes, I am.

Brent Black adheres to the “custom made” policy. Do you have any particular reason why you don’t open a shop?

Yes. If I had a shop, I would have to go there. I am an artist, not a shopkeeper. I am of Irish ancestry and temperamental; I could not be pleasant all day every day. I am more of a hermit than a public person.

One could have a retail shop and also custom make hats. The two are not mutually exclusive. As far as I know, I am the only major seller of Montecristi hats who does not have a shop, and the others also custom make hats.

What are the Brent Black’s exclusive charm and worth that no other brands have?

Brent Black.

On a good day, I can be quite charming and witty. I can speak intelligently and articulately on virtually any topic, certainly on any topic related to my hats. How many hatters earned a degree from Johns Hopkins, or a university of comparable reputation? How many hatters voluntarily gave up careers that paid them roughly six times more than being a hatter? But I’m no martyr. I have no regrets. I love what I do.

For others, Montecristi hats are just business. In fact, they are just a small part of their businesses. For me, Montecristi hats are the only reason my business exists. For me, they are more than my business, they are my mission, they are my passion. Perhaps my obsession.

Please explain about Brent Black’s unique custom-made service.

Heads don’t always come in hat sizes. Custom sizing a hat so it fits perfectly seems to me to be important. If you are going to spend $500 to $35,000 on a hat, it should fit you well.

By custom making my hats upon request, I can offer a much wider selection of styles. The same hat body can be blocked into many different styles, and even different sizes. I can offer clients a wide selection of ribbon colors, styles, and widths.

If I made my hats in advance of orders, I would have to try to guess which styles, sizes, and qualities clients might want. Once a hat has been blocked and finished as a size 7 3/8 Classic Fedora, it is not an Optimo custom sized to 23 1/8 inches.

I can talk with a client about his/her personal preferences, physical size, and so on. I can make crowns taller or shorter, brims wider or narrower. I can customize hats to proportions that will suit the wearer. I can combine the brim from one style with the crown from another style to make something very personal.

My system of sending out a range of custom sized bands for clients to try on allows me to custom size hats for clients to whose heads I do not have direct physical access. I have custom sized hats for clients in about 70 countries. I love that. I’ve always been a bit of a geography and map aficionado. My National Geographic World Atlas is among my most frequently consulted reference books. I love it that I’ve shipped hats to countries all over the world, from AZ to ZA. (Azerbaijan to South Africa.)

How do you want Brent Black to be remembered to people?

As the person who saved the art of Montecristi from extinction.

3 Inspirational Aesthetics interview

8 July 2014

Interview

Inspirational Aesthetics

Luxury lifestyle blog in Germany

1) The Panama hat is time-tested warm weather companion, and a very stylish one at that, but what makes the Panama hat such an enduring favorite?

A genuine Panama hat is surprisingly lightweight, compared to other types of hats, such as beaver felt hats. The weave of the straw “breathes” more than felt, so a Panama hat is cooler to wear. Montecristi “Panama” hats are even more lightweight than “Panama” hats woven in other regions of Ecuador. The light color of the straw is attractive and complements summer clothing colors and fabrics. Most likely, the single most important factor in the continuing popularity of Panama hats is that people like the way they look in a mirror.

1a) And why is it called a ”Panama hat” when the style originated in Ecuador?

Ah, the inevitable question. First, “Panama hat” is not a style; it is a type of headwear. There are many different styles of Panama hats: fedoras (I make 5 different fedora styles), Optimo, Homburg, Planter, and so on.

So, what defines a Panama hat? The classic Panama hat is hand woven of straw made from a specific type of plant (carludovica palmata). Typically, the straw is bleached to a light, almost white, color, and the hat is trimmed with a black ribbon. The plant is native to coastal Ecuador. The plants also grow, and hats are also woven commercially from the straw, in Peru, Colombia, and Mexico.

The primary commercial production originated in Manabí Province of Ecuador, around the cities of Montecristi and Jipijapa. In the early 1800s, the primary markets for the hats were Europe and the eastern US. The most convenient port for shipping the hats to those markets was in Panama. So, importers of the hats were buying hats that were shipped to them from Panama. Those importers did not really care, and possibly did not even know, that the hats were woven in Ecuador. To them, the hats came from Panama.

Most explanations of the name attribute it to miners who bought hats in Panama, on their way to and from the California gold fields, and took them to California or back home with them. The name is even more often attributed to workers building the Panama Canal who bought and wore the hats in Panama. However, the term “panama hat” is found in literature as early as 1838, before either the gold rush or the building of the canal.

2) While browsing your extensive offering of bespoke Panama hats, we noticed a clear focus on the Montecristi hat. What is a Montecristi hat, and what sets yours apart?

Montecristi is a city in coastal Ecuador. The city of Montecristi is the administrative center for Montecristi Canton (County). To be a genuine Montecristi hat, the plants used to make the straw must grow in Montecristi Canton. The straw must be prepared in Montecristi Canton. The weaving of the hat must occur in Montecristi Canton. And the traditional artisan preparation of the hat, after the weaver completes his/her part, must be done in Montecristi Canton.

My business was created with the specific goal, or mission, to try to rescue the endangered art of genuine Montecristi hats. It was not a goal to make a lot of money. I have had some success preserving the art of Montecristi hats, and I have been spectacularly successful not making a lot of money.

If you’re shopping for a Montecristi hat -- caveat emptor, buyer beware. As a consumer, be on guard. Fraud is rampant.

Hats produced in a different part of Ecuador, in and around the Andean city of Cuenca, are frequently and fraudulently misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. Cuenca hats are produced, and sold, more cheaply than genuine Montecristi hats, so hat exporters in Cuenca steal a large percentage of the market for Montecristi hats. The hat manufacturers who buy the Cuenca hats don’t know and/or don’t care that the hats are not genuine Montecristi hats; they simply prefer the lower prices. Plus, the exporters can rig the export documents to represent that the Cuenca hats are Montecristi hats. I have examples of this type falsified export documents. I also have Cuenca hats that have an indelible mark inside falsely declaring the hats to be Montecristi hats. Such marks are make with branding irons or ink stamps.

I estimate that more than half of the hats sold globally, which are sold as Montecristi hats, are not really Montecristi hats. I believe that the decades-old practice of selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats, and thus stealing sales from Montecristi, is the single most significant factor in the near extinction of genuine Montecristi hats. If this type of fraud could be stopped, the market for genuine Montecristi hats would increase dramatically.

I initiated legal action in Ecuador, which resulted, in 2007, in the first-ever Denomination of Origin designation for a product of the nation of Ecuador. The DO Resolution defines the traditional methods by which Montecristi hats are made, and defines the geographic area in which the hats must be made in order to qualify for the DO designation (in this case, Montecristi Canton).

A Denomination of Origin designation means that only products created within a specific geographic area, and only products conforming to defined preparation methods and standards, can use that name to describe the product. Familiar examples would be Napa Valley wines and Champagnes. To be marketed as a Napa Valley wine, the grapes must be grown in Napa Valley, California, and the wine must be made in Napa Valley. Sparkling wines may not be called Champagne unless the grapes were grown and the wine made within the Champagne region of France. They may claim to have been made with the méthode champenoise (champagne method), but they may not call themselves champagne.

A primary purpose of Denomination of Origin is so consumers will know they are buying the real thing, not a knock off. A second purpose is so product standards can be established and regulated.

As part of the process of applying for the DO, the Ecuador law firm arranged for a representative of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a part of the UN, to come to Ecuador to verify that Montecristi hats are distinctly different from the hats produced in the Cuenca area from the same type of straw. The WIPO examiner ruled that Cuenca hats and Montecristi hats are not the same. They are distinctly different, employing different methods of preparing straw, weaving the straw, and finishing the woven hats. I believe I may have commented “Woohoo!” at the time.

My goal in seeking DO status and protection for Montecristi hats was to stop the Cuenca exporters from selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. Unfortunately, the application prepared by the attorneys did not provide for any official certification process for genuine Montecristi hats, and did not provide for any sort of enforcement. The attorneys had a big party to celebrate their achievement. No weavers were invited. And absolutely nothing has changed.

Hats produced in the Cuenca area are still widely sold as “Montecristi” hats to unsuspecting buyers. This practice has been engaged in by some of the most famous retailers in the world, including a very famous hat store in London and another, less famous, shop in Sydney. I contacted both sellers and asked that they stop selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. Both removed the products from their websites, but I have not confirmed if they have stopped selling them in their stores. The Sydney shop made no response to my email request, other than to remove from their website the photos of Cuenca hats captioned to be Montecristi hats. The London hat store replied that they had bought the hats “in good faith,” and believed the Cuenca hats were Montecristi hats. Oh? The company was founded in 1676. In more than 300 years, they have not learned to tell the difference between brisa weave Cuenca hats and genuine Montecristi hats? I could teach a ten year old how to tell the difference in about 15 minutes, maybe less. I also advised them that they were spelling Montecristi incorrectly on their website, and that the straw is called toquilla straw, not tequila straw. Being an incorrigible wiseass, I suggested they should do future research in a library, rather than in a bar. Although I do understand the considerable attractions of bars over libraries.

One very important factor that sets my Montecristi hats apart from those sold by many other sellers is that my Montecristi hats really are Montecristi hats. I often see hats for sale, represented to be Montecristi hats, but which have retail prices lower than the prices I pay to buy genuine Montecristi hats from the weavers and their representatives, at the source in Montecristi. Easy deduction – they are not really Montecristi hats.

Visiting the websites of other sellers, I frequently see photos of hats that are represented to be Montecristi hats, but it is obvious to me, just looking at the photos, that the hats are brisa weave Cuenca hats, not Montecristi hats.

Another important difference between my Montecristi hats and those from other sellers, is that my Montecristi hats are all blocked and finished entirely by hand, the way hats were made a hundred years ago. Virtually all Panama hats, including Montecristi hats, are shaped on a hydraulic press, with ribbons and sweatbands sewn by machine.

My Montecristi hats are bespoke. Each hat is made only when ordered, is made specifically for the client who requests it, and is custom sized/fitted for that client. Clients can choose ribbon color and width, type of sweatband, and can request wider or shorter brims, taller or shorter crowns, etc.

I would estimate that I have blocked and styled, with my own hands, more than 5000 Montecristi hats. I seriously doubt anyone else in the world has that level of hands-on (literally) experience.

When you order the Montecristi hat of your dreams, remember that I have no Montecristi hats ready to ship and ready to wear. The process takes several weeks, from ordering your hat until you will be wearing it. This shocks many clients who have no experience with anything that is actually made by hand when ordered.

My favorite extreme example of this expectation of instant gratification is the client who called several years ago, from New York, on a Friday afternoon in the summer. He said, “You are in Hawaii, right?” Yes. “And it’s 6 hours earlier there?” Yes. “Well it’s 2 o’clock here. Because of the time difference, can you have my hat to me before I leave the office today?” Huh? Get a hat from my workshop to the Honolulu airport, to New York, and delivered to this guy’s office in 3 hours? Once again, the incorrigible wiseass factor came into play and I answered: Well, normally, I could do that. But right now my wormhole is in the shop for repairs. Sorry, can’t do that today.

So, if you want one of my hats, and you should want one of my hats, get comfortable because you will have to wait for me to make it.

Happily, you do not have to wait for the hat to be woven, prepared for export by Montecristi artisans, or shipped from Ecuador to Hawaii. I maintain an inventory of about 2000 unblocked Montecristi hat bodies. It is extremely unlikely any other seller of Montecristi hats would have even one-tenth that many Montecristi hats. Dealers in Montecristi estimate that the entire production of Montecristi hats (20 rows of weaves per inch and higher) will be about 1300 hats in 2014. I expect to buy more than one-third of total production and half, or more, of the very finest hats woven each year.

As much as possible, I buy my finest hats directly from the weavers, paying higher prices than other buyers, and putting cash directly into the hands of the weavers. Remember that the mission of my business is to preserve the art of Montecristi hats. I believe that if I want there to be weavers ten years from now, the weavers now must be paid enough so that they do not quit weaving and look for a better job. The weavers now must be paid enough so that others will want to weave hats. For the art to survive, hat weaving must be a desirable occupation.

When I sell one of the finest hats, priced $5000 and higher, the weaver receives a commission, even though I have already paid a high market cash price, and I own the hat. The weaver and the artisans who create the hat receive 40% of the retail value. My hope is that, if those who create the hats receive a higher percentage of the market value of their hats, they are more likely to keep making them than if I simply keep all the money, as other sellers do. This plan of mine would be much more effective if more people would buy hats priced $5000 and higher.

Perhaps you might need a $5000 hat right now. You don’t think so? Well, do you have any $5000 hats already? No. So, if you don’t have any, obviously you need at least one. Simple logic.

3) Before making some of the world’s finest Panama hats, you served as a writer and creative director in some very esteemed advertising agencies. Where did your passion for Panama hats come from, and what made you decide to take the rather big jump from advertising to take the rather big jump the start The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific?

In 1987, I read a book, a travel essay about Panama hat production in Ecuador. There were a couple of chapters about Montecristi. Reading the high praise for Montecristi hats caused me to want see some. The author predicted that the art of Montecristi hats would be dead in less than twenty years. I decided to go to Montecristi to see the hats before they were gone. It seemed like it would a fun adventure. It was.

I went to Montecristi in search of Sr. Rosendo Delgado Garay, a dealer mentioned in the book. I found him. I saw, felt, held, and even smelled my first Montecristi hats. I did not taste them. (I can honestly say I have never licked a Montecristi hat.) They were worth the 11,000-mile trip. I touched their brims, and they touched my heart. I fell in love with Montecristi hats.

A few years later, my tax accountant commented, “You’re not in business with the hats; you’re in love with the hats.” Yeah.

Why? I don’t know. I sometimes joke that the hats chose me. But I’m not sure it’s a joke. There is no logical reason for me to have decided to try to save a hand art form in a country I was visiting for the first time, and whose language I did not speak. Other than baseball caps as a kid, I was not a wearer of hats. I had no exposure to hat making of any kind. I knew nothing whatsoever about the hat industry, knew nothing about making Panama hats.

Ignorance is bliss. Sure, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll buy some of these Montecristi hat bodies, take them back to Hawaii, have them turned into actual hats somehow, with a style shape, ribbon, and sweatband. Then sell them somehow. Not only sell them, but sell so many that I would reverse a 40-year decline in hat wearing, reverse a 40-year decline in Montecristi hat production, and save the art from extinction. Right.

The book had predicted that Montecrisit hats would be dead in twenty years. I made it my mission to prevent his prediction from coming true. Many have said I succeeded, that without my naïve and Quixotic efforts the prediction would have come true. I enjoy the irony that the prediction itself made the prediction not come true.

After twenty years of working to defeat the twenty-year time frame of the prediction, I celebrated the still-shaky survival of the art by commissioning the best weaver alive to weave the most finely woven hat of his life. He did. He wove the most finely woven hat of anyone’s life, the finest Montecristi hat ever woven.

Five years later, in 2013, I commissioned him to beat his own record. He did. Eight months of weaving. Not surprisingly, after eight months and a thousand hours of working bent in half, weaving straws finer than dental floss, Simón declared with some passion: “ I don’t want to do this again.”

Simón has no peers, no rivals. So far, no prodigies have emerged from the weaving school we created. (The school is entering its fourth year with a student body of 12 and a faculty of 2.) The finest Montecristi hat ever woven is probably the finest that ever will be woven. Simón will not weave a finer hat. There will not be a finer weaver. This hat is, and will remain, the finest Montecristi hat ever woven, the highest example of a legendary art form.

Perhaps it is your size.

Here’s something to ask yourself: Who should wear the finest Panama hat ever woven? Bill Gates? David Beckham? A movie star? Jay-Z? A woman? Send your Top Ten candidates list to this blog.

With regard to the jump from creating advertising to making hats, I did not quit my day job right away. I was clueless. I knew less than nothing about hats – what I thought I knew was wrong. I could not find my butt with both hands, a good mirror, and a strong light. I’d have fallen flat on that butt in a big hurry if I’d quit my job to be a hat maker.

I found someone to block the hats. I found a resort hotel shop to buy them. My advertising experience enabled me to create and produce sales and marketing materials. Over time, I added clients. Most were shops in luxury resort hotels in Hawaii. A few were hat shops and cigar stores on the mainland US. Even a couple of stores in Europe. The business grew. It became a real business. I still had not quit my day job.

I was working for a dot-com company in 2000 when the dot-com bubble burst and my job disappeared. I decided, what the hell, maybe it was a sign from the hat gods that it was time for me to become a full time HATMAN (my license plate now). Predictably, the plate is on the Hatmobile. Orders often come in on the Hatphone.

After twenty-eight years in the not-always-mellow world of advertising, I longed for the peaceful ease of hat making. Turns out that was like a tuberculosis patient longing for the peace and ease of Ebola. Hat making has been anything but peaceful and easy. It has also been the right path.

One of the best hand blockers, who had made hats for me, had recently closed his store in Springfield, MA and retired. He agreed to teach me to do my own blocking. Another hat maker in Nashville passed away and his widow wanted to sell the hat making equipment, blocks, flanges, vintage ribbons, tools. Good stuff to have if you think you’re going to make hats. I bought it. I bought more equipment in Springfield from my teacher, the retired blocker.

I updated and upgraded my website. The site originally was intended to be an online reference library with information about Montecristi hats. I have always believed that the more people know about Montecristi hats, and the more they understand how they are made, the more they will want to wear one. I knew, from my own frustrating searches for accurate information about Montecristi hats, that there was very little information available, and most of what I did find turned out to have been inaccurate.

Fortunately for my business, a good friend who was the driving force in getting my website up and running was relentless in his insistence that I had to get a toll free number, find a credit card processor, and sell hats on the website.

Seemed crazy. Who was ever going to buy a straw hat he can’t see, feel, or try on -- for $500 and up? Not likely.

But I eventually yielded and did what he said. Good thing. Turns out people visiting my website could tell from reading the site that I am sincere and passionate about Montecristi hats. They started buying hats, and I did not have to go back to working in advertising agencies, which I did enjoy and sometimes miss.

4) In addition to your company, you also established The Montecristi Foundation, which supports the artisans weaving your hats and their communities. What made you go this extra step?

The purpose of my company, the reason it was created in the first place, is to keep alive the art of fine hat weaving in Montecristi. To save an art, one must save the artists. My company was beginning to fund medical care, food for weavers, eyeglasses, and other projects of a charitable nature, “good works.” I was advised that setting up a non-profit foundation would allow the business activities to be clearly separated from the charitable activities.

The Montecristi Foundation, Inc. is a not-for-profit private operating foundation. For several years, we focused on providing free medical care to the village of Pile. Then, finally, the government discovered the village and began a regular program of medical care, so we redirected our resources to free eye exams, free eyeglasses, free supplies to weavers, free safety masks to protect weavers from sulfur fumes when bleaching the straw, and so on. The foundation, along with Hartford York hat catalogue, funded an important water project for the village. The foundation established a weaving school in Pile where the next generation is learning to weave the very finest Montecristi hats, learning to keep the legend alive. The foundation helped to fund the cost of the legal action to apply, successfully, for the Denomination of Origin for Montecrisiti hats. Most of the effort was pro bono by Paz Horowitz law firm in Quito. The foundation has designed an environmentally safe, worker-safe “oven” for bleaching the hats with sulfur.

I think that’s all good stuff. Stuff worth doing. The foundation helps me do it. I wish we could do more.

5) When daydreaming about which hats we would like to order the most, “Hemingway’s Hat” emerged as a clear favorite among our team. For this hat, you clearly put your creative skills to use when crafting its backstory. What was the inspiration behind the story, and what makes a “Hemingway’s Hat” so special?

“Hemingway’s Hat” was introduced in 2013, and became an immediate best seller. The mini-story I wrote to capture the spirit of this style begins with a very fun premise – that Hemingway called me from Cuba when I was ten, told me I would be a hat maker some day, and described the hat he wanted me to make for him.

I am hugely flattered that so many readers have been tempted to wonder if the story is true, As a writer, for people to think something I wrote might have been written by Hemingway is an ultimate compliment.

When National Geographic decided to publish two of my photos, it was an ultimate compliment. National Geographic. The holy grail for travel photographers. I was dancing on the walls for days. When they told me they were sending a check for $1700, I remember thinking I’d have paid them twice that much to publish my photos.

The style “Hemingway’s Hat” is exactly the same style as my Classic Fedora, shaped on the same blocks. But instead of choosing the hat to be blocked from my normal inventory, I choose a “second,” a hat with some issue that caused it to have been demoted out of the regular inventory. A spot. Some broken straw. An excessively irregular brim edge. A break in the back weave. Maybe it’s just an older hat. The HH prices are lower, for the same weave counts, than the Classic Fedoras. A “Hemingway’s Hat” priced at $1000 would have been a $2000 Classic Fedora, if only it didn’t have that little “bruise” from the apaleador. I’m working on that very hat right now.

A client in Russia bought a $3000 Classic Fedora and wanted an obviously finer weave. Ay yi yi! The weave of a $3000 hat is already so fine that you need a magnifying glass to see the weave clearly. I remembered a hat I had which had been woven by Simón Espinal. Weave count in the low-40’s. His “normal” hats are about 50. The hat has a sort of blue-ish hue, not objectionable at all, but not what people are expecting. If I had a store where people could see the hat, someone would have fallen in love with it. But on the Internet? Not so much. We agreed on $7500. I put a vintage gray ribbon on it to complement the straw color. The client was ecstatic. A beautiful hat had found a happy home. Simón received a nice commission. The client also made a generous donation to the weaving school. There should be more days like that.

The “Hemingway’s Hat” has been so well received and enjoyed that I decided to expand the idea to include several other styles: the Optimo HH, Havana Fedora HH, and the wider brim Aficionado HH and Plantation HH. The current style will become the Original Hemingway’s Hat.

6) What is the biggest piece of advice you would give someone considering making an investment in one of your hats?

Order now.

Or possibly:

Don’t spend above your comfort zone. Someone might spill red wine on your hat three seconds after it is out of the box.

Do your part. This is a team sport. My system for custom fitting your hat works very well. With clients in 70 countries, it is imperative to get the size right. Can’t be shipping hats back and forth between Hawaii and Azerbaijan or Bakobeeyahnd.

Measure your head carefully so you will receive the right size test bands. The size test bands you will receive are your way to “try on” your hat. Please try them on thoughtfully. You don’t want to wait weeks for your custom hat, then have to send it back to be re-sized.

Enjoy the process. Rejoice that, in our instant-everything mass-produced McWorld, there is still one fool willing to try to hand block Montecristi hats as they were blocked a hundred years ago. Savor the slowness. Allow me the luxury of working without being rushed, of having the latitude to decide I just don’t like how your hat came out and start over. Some hats block beautifully and relatively easily. Others . . . not so much. I just keep working until I like how your hat looks. I figure if I like it you will too.

Yeah, it would be better if it was faster and easier. But it’s not. So, get comfortable. Get Zen. Get Zacapa rum. And read my website while you wait. The more you know, the more you will enjoy your hat.

7) As an indisputable connoisseur of Panama Hats, which is the hat you reach for before heading outside in the Hawaiian sun?

It depends on who I want to be that day. Different styles have different personalities. Change your hat and you’ve changed your whole look, even if the rest of the clothes remain the same.

On days when the A.Q. (Adventure Quotient) is high, a Kentucky Smith® Safari Edition is often the choice.

Most days, it’s a Montecristi Classic Fedora. To me, the Classic Fedora is what a real Panama hat should look like. It’s what I would want to be wearing in a Bogart movie.

 
The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific dba Brent Black Panama Hats 1314 Center Dr., Suite B-448 Medford, OR 97501 There is no retail store at this address. (more) Toll Free: (888) 658-6500 Phone: (541) 201-3113

Text and photos © 1988-2021, B. Brent Black. All rights reserved.

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