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The World's Best Hats

A Search for the World's Greatest Hatmaker Ends in Italy
Harry Rosenholtz
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

There is an old joke about a man obsessed with finding the world's best Bavarian creme pie. He travels to the finest bakeries in Vienna, Salzburg and throughout the Black Forest--but to no avail. Finally, as an elderly man, he learns about a legendary baker who can be found at the top of the highest mountain in the Alps. He scales the mountain and, exhausted, reaches the summit where there is a small shack; from it comes the most fragrant smell of Bavarian creme pie the man has ever experienced. He approaches the master baker (quite an old man himself) and says, "Please, kind sir, I have searched all of my life for a spoonful of your Bavarian creme pie." The old baker, somewhat astonished, apologetically replies, "I am sorry, but I have just sold my last piece." Devastated from the news and realizing that his life's ambition will go unfulfilled, the man pauses...and then says, "OK. I'll take apple."

My search has been almost as elusive. For the better part of my life, I have been seeking the world's finest felt hat. My interest in hats is both professional--as the owner of Worth & Worth, the oldest men's hat shop in New York--and personal.

I can trace my early interest in hats, in the 1950s and '60s, to my great-uncle Abe. A stockbroker and successful businessman, he always seemed to wear the perfect fedora for every occasion; a charcoal gray with his navy business suits or a dark olive with his camel cashmere topcoat. He once confided to me that his hat had always been his signature. Not in any garish or contrived way; in fact, it was because his hats always had an understated dignity that they were so compelling. They were what separated him from the ordinary gray suits, made him instantly recognizable and conferred a sense of authority.

Of course, he had a favorite hat shop. It was the old Cavanagh shop on Park Avenue in New York City. There, the store's salesmen welcomed him as a member of a revered and select club, and maintained a record of his hat size and his style preferences. There were other rituals, to be sure: the way the salesmen handled the hats and presented them to a client was always great theater, the way they brushed the hats off before a customer would be permitted to exit the store.

I remember the quality of the hats as being extraordinary. The felt was not particularly lightweight, and it appeared to be extremely dense. Yet, it felt mellow to the touch. Most of all, I recall the sound of the hat when placed on a table; it was a muffled, almost inaudible, thud, as though it had been dropped onto a cloud. I later learned that the soft touch and sound were a result of curing the felt, a process similar to aging a fine wine.

Fine hat making was far more commonplace then than it is today. The center of hat making in America was Connecticut, in the cities of Danbury and Norwalk. (At the turn of the century, more than 30 hat factories employed at least 15,000 workers in Danbury alone.) At its peak, Danbury was producing between five and six million hats per year. Great names, such as Lee, Rundle & White, and Mallory, were all produced there. These hats were essentially made by hand and produced by artisans, many of whom had roots in fine European hat making traditions.

But the Industrial Age was unkind to hat making. The ability to mass-produce hats fostered unfortunate compromises in the process. Hydraulic presses, aluminum blocks and large dying bins may be great for large quantities of cookie-cutter styles, but unevenness in the felt, porousness and unsightly mottling were, and are, most often the result.

My search for the world's finest felt hat had taken me to places I never expected to go--to England, France and Germany, of course, but also to Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia. My search seemed fruitless until a few years ago when, quite by chance, in Italy I stumbled upon the world's finest hat factory and the old master who runs it.

The most famous name in hats in Italy has always been Borsalino. Its largest competitor was a company called Barbisio. Both factories had been known for making exceptional quality fur-felt hats, although each had its areas of specialization. In the early 1980s, Borsalino was sold to an investment banking group, which moved its production from the original factory, founded in Alessandria in 1856, to an industrial park on the outskirts of town. With this move came a greater capacity for efficiency but also the diminution of the hatmaker's distinctive qualities. The company reduced the number of available colors from more than 150 to a couple dozen, it no longer made sizes larger than 7 3/4 and it cut back on hand-sewing and other finishing processes that had once made it famous.

Barbisio fell on even harder times during the 1980s, and by decade's end had to liquidate its equipment and close its factory. When I went to the Barbisio factory in search of salvageable old equipment, I met Tibaldo Eden, who had a small factory just a few hundred meters from Barbisio's. Nearly 80 years old at the time, Eden had spent his entire life as a hatmaker. For many years his factory, Cappellificio Cervo, had been a subcontractor for both Borsalino and Barbisio and had produced some of the most famous styles in history under their labels.

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