Panama Hats are a Dying Tradition
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In the end, the buying public may be the determining factor for the future of Montecristis straw hats. "The only way to save this art is to create a demand for it," explains Black. "Over the last few years, I've been able to purchase more Montecristi Finos than all other buyers combined. As a consequence, there are more weavers weaving now than at any time in the past twenty years. It's working. We may actually be saving the art. But we have a long way to go."
About a year ago, Black left Ogilvy & Mather to work full time on the hats. Besides day to day operations of importing, wholesaling and searching for additional retailers, Black sees his role as someone who is directly involved with the weavers, doing everything possible to encourage and reward their efforts.
He is in the initial stages of proposing the creation of a Panama hat museum, a project requiring the involvement of the Ecuadorian government. He feels that it is vitally necessary for the craftsmen to feel that their art is appreciated. He also hopes to sponsor an annual contest which would award a substantial cash prize for the finest Montecristi. He sees this as a way to stimulate the weavers to strive for the highest levels of the art and to encourage young people to pursue the craft. He has already instituted a program to number and register each Montecristi Fino so that people who purchase a hat will be more conscious of the importance of what they own.
Most of all, Brent Black would like to see the public become aware of the talented artists who create these treasures and who struggle to pass their art on from one generation to the next. "Whenever someone purchases one of our Montecristi Finos, they are, in effect, commissioning another to be woven. It's the only way these treasures will continue to exist."
Harry Rosenholtz is the owner of Worth & Worth on Madison Avenue in New York City.