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.
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.
There 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?
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.
Text and photos © 1988-2022, B. Brent Black. All rights reserved.
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