I like things that attach to my extremities… shoes on my feet, rings on my fingers, gloves on my hands and hats on my head! Sadly I have never felt I had a head for hats, but I LOVE hats! I will buy them because I imagine myself sauntering around Paris with this frivolous thing decorating me like some kind of ultra chic Audrey Hepburn character, and then when I bring it home at look at myself in my evil mirror, I feel like a silly cupcake. So I hang the hat on the wall and thus have found a new and interesting way of decorating my wall space.
Buuuut… I recently discovered the Alibaba cavern for hat lovers with heads for hats or not, because there IS a hat foreveryone in here! This place is full of head (or wall) decorations! And they are not just any type of hats, they are authentic panama hats, and hand made “ceremony” hats. The luxe de luxe of hats.
I met Melanie, who runs the business with her mother Adeline, (and has her own shop in Bruxelles: La Chapeliere at rue de Rollebeek 44, 1000 Bruxelles www.lachapeliere.be) and immediately asked to come visit when I heard about their boutique and workshop. I skipped over on my lunch hour as it is just five minutes by foot from where I work on the Faubourg Saint Honoré, armed with my camera and my usual curiosity. I was greeted by their pug Lady Louise, and chihuahua, Cookie who are both excellent actors and tend to get everyone’s attention just by presenting their best puppy-dog-face (easy for them to do). You can ask them for their opinion when trying on hats, they often give quite positive feedback!
I walked into the boutique and my immediate exclamation was : “It’s so fun and girly!”…and it is really. But guys not to fret they have some of the best panama hats for you too! I will get to those later. But first! Such a fabulous frivolous boutique! Full of feathers and pom-poms and frilly stuff all for your head! I wish we lived in a society where we could were things like this every day in every day life. I was born in the wrong era. There are literally dozens of drawers full of fun things to embellish your ceremonial hat with.
I was given the royal welcome at the boutique that is reined over by Adeline for the past twelve years and of course Lady Louise, and I received an insightful tour by Melanie who explained all the steps and elements of chapelerie and panama hat making which is a meticulous art. The panama hat is woven from a plant fiber called Carludovica palmata in honor of the Spanish king and queen Charles and Louise (Carolus & Ludovica in Latin, hence the name for the plant), that has fan shaped leaves one meter long. These are processed by several artisans, the person who cuts them : the “pajero, then they are delicately washed, bleached and dried until it becomes the “paja toquilla” straw that you see in your finely woven hat. The weaver then creates the crown of the hat and weaves one long continuous circling weave until you have a hat and brim. The brim is then finished off by another artisan who knows how to turn the ends of the cut plant leaves into a finely woven seam around the edge. For some of the finest woven hats, the artist can take up to 6 months to finish! These are what are called the “Montecristi” artisans (as the finest hats are made in Montecristi), and they are so skilled and so few, that hats woven by them are rare and precious and can cost upwards of 10K€! The hat then goes through a process where it is shaped on a hand carved wooden form with steam, and a colored band is added as a decorative element around the base.
Melanie explained all of this as she showed me the various tools used for steaming the hats and then brought out the precious Montescristi pieces for me to awe over. Can you image…in our day and age where everything is made fast and cheap… the delight at seeing something that one person worked on for months on end?!? They don’t make skilled artisans like that anymore. Their work should be admired and preserved, for it is more and more rare to see such dedication to an art form such as this. They recognize the pureness of this art-form at Authentic Panama, and treat their hats like the delicate and fine objects that they are.
Panama hats rose in popularity with the rise in exports of the cocoa bean, these hats were worn while working on the plantations. They were exported from Equator where they were being made since the 17th century, to Panama which was an inevitable trading route and sold to people headed off for the gold rush in California. The hat was introduced to the chic society of Paris in 1855 at the world’s fair.
Besides the famous Panama hat, Authentic Panama offers dress hats and ceremony hats, for weddings, parties, a day at the races even fashion week… that can be created and personalized for each individual client. This is the creative part of Authentic Panama, and one that really speaks to me. Whatever your fancy…they can create it. And it is made to fit your head perfectly.
I wish I had known about this boutique previously, I would have had my mini top hat that I wore at my wedding made here. The person who made mine made it the wrong color and I had to fix it myself. But my desire for a beautiful couvre-tête was satisfied a few days after my visit when I went running back, determined to find the hat of my dreams.
A hat for the beach, for my honeymoon vacation on the shores of Cyprus… and I found it! A “capeline” with a wide, floppy brim woven in Cuenca, and shaped by Melanie. With a fabulous pair of shades, I feel like something out of a glamorous vintage movie…perhaps for a couple of weeks on an exotic beach I CAN feel like I am in another era…