Written by Puff Staff

Sunday, 12 June 2011

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panama1Panama-lover Brent Black has made a name for himself as the saviour of hand-woven Montechristi hats, and has created an online treasure chest of the headwear in the process. The milliner’s been telling Puff why Panama hats from Montechristi are the best around, and revealing how Charlie Sheen’s been helping out the hat-weavers of Ecuador. Montechristi might be famous for its tobacco, but it’s also the home of one of the world’s finest Panama hats. The exquisite art of hat weaving has been practised in this Ecuadorian town for centuries, and hats of the highest quality and finest weave have been produced. Named after the exotic coastal town, these finely-woven treasures became known as Montechristi Finos, and are now considered to be one of the most desirable Panama hats in the world.

The superior quality of the Montechristi Fino was recognised by travellers and entrepreneurs making their way to the gold mines of Panama back in the 40s and 50s. The rich and affluent snapped up the straw headwear from sellers in Panama, while stars like Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart dazzled audiences from beneath their hand-woven brims. Picking up the name ‘Panamas’, the hand-woven hats were frequently churned out by weavers in Montechristi and Cuenca, with hats from Montechristi soon recognised as some of the best in the world. Like Yorkshire and puddings; Cuba and cigars; Madagascar and vanilla: Montechristi soon became famous for its Panamas, and the hats became woven into the history of the town. 
The Montecristo Fino is still one of the finest hats ever made; it’s the epitome of luxury and style, of quality and class. But until recently, the treasured hat-weaving process in Montechristi was entering a period of serious decline. With fewer weavers every year, journalist and travel writer Tom Miller predicted in 1986 that hat-weaving in Montechristi would be extinct within 20 years.

A Thread of Hope
Decades later however, one man is still fighting to protect the hat-weaving process in Montechristi. Determined to buck the trend, PR guru-turned-milliner Brent Black has spent the last 23 years nurturing fine-weaving in the Ecuadorian town, and has built up an impressive online empire of Montechristi Finos. Fanatical about the hats and vehemently committed to protecting their legacy, he’s working directly with the weavers to help keep this unique industry alive. We caught up with the former assistant creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi to find out why he abandoned a blossoming PR career and how he fell under the spell of the Montechristi Fino.


He told Puff it all began in 1988 when, inspired by Tom Miller’s book The Panama Hat Trail, he decided to embark on a journey - or an adventure as he calls it - to the Ecuadorian town of Montechristi.

“While Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather Honolulu, I travelled solo to Montecristi on an ‘adventure’ vacation. I 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 and 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.”

We asked Black if he could describe his very first encounter with a Montechristi Fino...

“When I touched my first Montecristi hat, it touched me back. I had not expected to have such a visceral response to a hat. It weighed less than a letter on my stationery. I felt the brim between thumb and forefinger. I’d turned book pages thicker than this.

It was unimaginable to me that this hat was crafted by human hands. With my reading glasses on, and under a strong light, I admired row after row after row after row of tiny, even, overlapping threads of straw. The colour was that of old, well-cared-for ivory. I held it to the light and it glowed, seemingly translucent. It truly was a work of art.

Instantly, I understood why, for two centuries, Montecristi hats had been so highly prized by kings, emperors, and anyone else who could find them and afford them.”

The weavers he met in Montechristi told him what Miller had already predicted: the art of hat-weaving was in decline. Black soon started developing a plan that would see him drop everything he had worked for, and begin a new life as milliner.

“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. I thought 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. He 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. “

It was obvious that Black had fallen in love with the hats, but why give up his PR career? He told us he puts it down to fate:

“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, but had no clue I was training to become a hatter who would attempt to preserve an endangered art form in Ecuador.

I have but one explanation – the hats chose me. 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, 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.”

Invigorated by his new sense of purpose, Black embarked on a mission to save the treasured Montechristi Fino and reinvigorate Ecuador’s weaving community. He began buying as many hats as he could and taught himself to block the hats from his workshop in Hawai. Buying hundreds of raw Montechristis, he shaped them and started selling them under the name ‘The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific’.

“I do the work myself and I work alone for many hours at a time. 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.”

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