Yesterday I met up with Hugo Gonzenbach, the hat curator. We went to the town of Pile an hours drive from Las Tanusas in Ecuador. About 700 people live in this small, unassuming town. Hugo, a model advocate of fair trade, had to stop by a couple of the weavers to check in on the progress of what are arguably the finest hats in the world.
Our first stop off was meant to be with Simone, the finest weaver in the town. His hats can fetch up to $25,000 a piece and famously has fashioned the hat worn by Charlie Sheen. Montecristi superfinos are synonymous with stardom. A type of Panama hat, these were worn by Winston Churchill, Mike Tyson, Napoleon Bonaparte and my personal favourite Thomas Wolfe, and that list goes on and on.
Simone was engrossed in watching the local boys playing a game of football so instead, we headed to Paulaina, another maker working with Hugo. At the edge of town, just off from the main road, we entered a spacious but modest room. Fashioned out of cinder blocks with few windows these homes could have been gaunt and depressing but such were the vivid pinks, blues reds and purples painted on the walls they were a welcome shelter from the burning sun.
Patricia spoke no English and I spoke some truly awful Spanish but we smiled at each other and spoke as if the other new what we were saying, thus boiling down the conversation to pleasantries and good spirits, a wonderful way to talk to someone I'd say. She brought out the hat she had been working on and demonstrated for us - it was 4 pm and the day was hot, so work rarely happens during this hour of the day - how a Pile hat weaver works. While Patricia worked away, her son sweet and confident leant against the door frame, charm in abundance, he had an air of authority that despite is young age settled the room, I sensed a wise soul beyond his years.
More artwork than an accessory, a hat can take up to four months to create. The weaves spend hours bent over the hats crafting them. Rightly, Hugo is paying them very well and drives a lot of business through a town that over the past four years is losing it's other primary source of income, agriculture. Next, we visited Carmen, who's daughter had been working as a maid until a week ago in the nearby city of Manta. Work is scarce in Pile and there just isn't enough of a market for the weavers to support this community. Hugo see's the culture of hat making in the town of Pile being intrinsic to the wealth of happiness in this community, they are so closely knit.
The history of these hats goes very deep, though. In Pile alone, this tradition of weaving has stretched out for at least a century. But, there exist ceramic models of people wearing such hats that date back far beyond the birth of christ. No one knows the exact history of these hats and those that craft them but Hugo intends to find it. His ties with the town of Pile are joyous to watch. A community not familiar with outsiders, he shows such profound respect and tenderness to a group of people that, equally, were incredibly hospitable. Some things are universal, like watching a football tournament with the entire population, sharing a deliciously cool beer. We finally caught up with Simone here. A man who has weaved for decades, he boasts the finest weave of a grade of sixty. A grade is measured by counting how many stitches per inch.