Sunset May 2002
No Ordinary Hat
Practice safe sun - and appreciate amazing artistry - with a custom made panama
By Karl Samson
When I was 16, I bought a suede hat. I knew even then that I was a hat person. Over the years I've worn British driving caps, berets, and straw hats. But the first time I saw a genuine panama, I knew I had to have one.
That first glimpse occurred in Bisbee, Arizona, where I happened upon Óptimo Custom Hatworks Milliner/Renovator. Straw hats filled the display window - but the variety of styles and the artistic way they were displayed said these were no ordinary hats. These were the real thing - genuine panamas straight from…Ecuador.
That's right: Despite the name, panamas are made in Ecuador. It is widely believed that they came by their name in the 19th century, when sailors would purchase them in Panama - a common transshipment point for South American goods.
These days, panamas are worn not just by sailors, but by men and women from all over. They're manufactured from the fronds of palmettos and, depending on the fineness of the weave, take anywhere from a few days to 10 months to make. The highest quality hats, known as fino finos, can sell for upwards of $20,000. However, Óptimo has panamas for as little as $125. That may seem pricey, but not when you consider that these hats are custom-fitted by store owner Grant Sergot. Sergot not only sizes each hat to fit but also shapes each one to the customer's specifications.
Because most customers have never owned a custom hat, Sergot makes sure that each gets just the right one. However, "a person's idea of what they want may be different from what we actually put on them," says Sergot, who likes his hats to reflect the personality of the wearer.
Though panamas are a great way to keep the sun off your face, they are much more than functional fashion accessories. "I feel like I've given each hat a special character or soul," says Sergot. "Once you've had a panama straw hat, you get spoiled."