When is a straw hat more like a work of museum-quality art? According to Hawaii-based haberdasher Brent Black (yes, that is his real name), it is when he’s selling it. Through his Panama Hat Company of the Pacific, the ad executive-turned-headwear guru offers handmade hats from Montecristi, the town in Ecuador that is the true home of the classic “Panama” (the hats became associated with the country of canal fame because it is where they were initially shipped). And, yes, they can go for as much as $25,000 (or in one instance, even $100,000). Black says that while there is demand for his high-priced models, he sells them with great reluctance, “like an art collector parting with a Picasso” or “a symphony violinist selling a Stradivarius.”
What makes these versions of the classic summer hat so special? Black says it all begins with the straw, which comes from a plant “cut at just the right time of development.” From there, the weaving begins — in general, the finer the weave, the better the Panama. Black sources many of his top-tier hats from Simon Espinal, a famed weaver from Montecristi who can put hundreds of hours into each hat he produces. But the process isn’t complete until the hat is delivered to Black, who then puts in up to another 50 hours of labor in the “blocking,” meaning the actual shaping of the hat into any of a number of popular styles, from the familiar Fedora to a “Downing Street” (good for the kind of man who wears “spats to the club,” Black explains).
Black insists he’s not getting terribly rich off his hats, saying much of the money goes back to the weavers themselves. Black also supports a foundation that provides medical care in Montecristi and backs a local weaving school to keep the hat-making tradition alive. As for his clients, Black says he has a few wealthy buyers lining up for his $25,000 hats each year. Among the most notorious: the controversial actor/womanizer Charlie Sheen, who purchased one in 2008 as a gift for himself when he wed socialite Brooke Mueller; the couple divorced two years later. Or as Black likes to say: “The hat has lasted longer than the marriage.”
A $25,000 hat may be quite a statement in style, but it is overkill, say many fashion pros. Sharp-looking and high-quality Panama hats can be found for under $500 and even under $100, although such examples may not be genuine Montecristi hats (“Panamas” are also made elsewhere in Ecuador and in other parts of the world).
[?] Either way, the weave is key. “Make sure the Panama hat has a tight weave because this indicates that the hat will last,” says Jackie Morgan, a fashion pro who runs a New York-based wardrobe-consulting service/online store, Sell It Now NY. Morgan also advises to be on the lookout for synthetic straw — a no-no since it has “a tendency to fall apart.”
But a good Panama is about more than durability: The look is important, too: Morgan advises hat-wearers to “go neutral” with brown, black or beige hats, since they’ll stay in fashion no matter how tastes change. Other Panama advocates say to stick with white. And the shape? “When in doubt, go for the classic fedora,” says Richard W. Biasi, a Chicago-based fashion pro who specializes in all things vintage. It is “crisp, clean and polished, even when bought on the cheap,” Biasi adds.
Brent Black doesn’t dispute the notion that $25,000 is a lot of money for a chapeau, especially since hats are one of those items that often get lost or accidentally left behind. And that is why he offers genuine Montecristi hats for much less; he estimates that “90% of my sales are hats between $500 to $1,500.” But he cautions that if a buyer goes too low, they’re missing the point. “At around the $800 to $1,000 level, that is really where the art starts to show,” he says.