NAVIGATING THE TRICKY WORLD OF PANAMA HATS
Navigating the world of Panama hats can be tough for a beginner. The Panama is an exquisite artisanal art form with a long and revered heritage - they are frequently copied and faked in substandard form. Any white hat can be called a Panama, and it is downright deceptive marketing. I love the Ecuadorians, they are beautiful people with generous hearts, and they cannot afford to mount international legal battles to stop the trickery, so it goes on. The only way to work it out is to look into the details.
1. FAKE STRAW - 'artificial straw', polypropylene, 'paper straw', Toyo, Shantung. These are the most prevalent, and are machine-made across Asia in vast numbers, very cheaply. All these hats breath poorly, and will cause your head to smell, sweat and are damn uncomfortable. The plastic hats are indestructible and will last forever. The paper hats can sweat themselves apart. Often they coat the paper in plastic to make them last longer, and again you have a plastic bag on your head - a terrible idea in hot weather. When you find the details of the materials used, it becomes clear. If they don't specify it at all, you can be sure they are plastic. If the hat costs less than $100, you can be very sure that it is not a Panama.
2. OTHER STRAW HATS - There are weavers making hats in China, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia and even Brazil. Sometimes they will use the same straw as a Panama (Toquilla, Carludovica), but usually, it is an inferior alternative. Their techniques of preparation and weaving are also substandard. The Chinese have an ancient hat weaving tradition, but the straw they use is coarse, scratchy, easily breaks and dyes poorly. Unless they explicitly state it is "made in Ecuador", then it is not a Panama hat. Retailers will lie about the origin as well, and the only way to tell is the pricing and the shape of the weaving. All the pictures here are listed online as genuine Panama hats. The best way to tell is if the centre of the crown spirals out like the picture to the left, then it is most likely a Panama. Unfortunately, they will sometimes copy the shape of the Panama weaving to make a high-quality fake. It gets tricky. If you are buying from a retailer who does many different fashion products, it is unlikely to be a Panama. Panama hatmaking is a specialised artisanal field.
3. LOW-GRADE PANAMA HATS - This is when it gets even more misleading. When the hats are handwoven in Toquilla straw, they are sorted into grades and priced appropriately. You can buy a Panama in Ecuador for $25, but these hats are not worth owning. They are what they call grade zero; loose, erratic, lumpy and coarse. Woven rapidly, in large numbers by inexperienced weavers. To hide their imperfections, they will bleach the hats heavily, until it is a rubbery luminous mass. Then it is dyed an ivory colour and passed as a bargain to unsuspecting tourists and online buyers. If you feel the hat in your hand, it is all slick and plastic-like. These hats usually have a 'natural edge' where the straw is roughly woven back into itself to finish the hat. They frequently fall apart, the brim frays and the hat will disintegrate. Additionally, the brim will always look like crap - hard to shape, wonky and very unflattering. Typically these hats are a Brisa weave, which is like a light crosshatch pattern. It is the fastest and cheapest to weave, and also the weakest and poorest quality (although a good quality Brisa is a great work of art). They will crack through the pinch at the front of the hat within weeks. Sometimes manufacturers will glue material into the crown to stop this happening. It is a cheap way of making a cheap weave last a bit longer. Hats are like anything else - you get what you pay for.
4. LOW-END ECUADORIAN DROP SHIPPERS - No doubt you will have come across amazing 'deals' on Montechriti's, finos and cheap Panama hats online. There are no standards for Panama hat quality, so they can say whatever they like and convince you with a lovely picture, that you are getting a bargain. Most of these businesses buy up cheap hats and simply ship them. They don't know how to style them, fit them or even how they will look on your head. It is like buying a pair of shoes from Ecuador; the odds are they are not going to be worth owning unless you are Ecuadorian. Their sense of style, design skills and execution will be far less than you are accustomed. If you don't care how it will look on your head, then at least you save some money.
Every hatmaker works to a different price and quality point. We have been fortunate to be able to design beautiful, practical Panama hats that people love to own. They cost a bit more, but for the next ten years your investment always looks good, and you love to wear it. To me, that is what really matters.