I like Ecuador; I have never been there, but I have developed a favorable opinion of the place.

Partly, this is because I have had a number of students from Ecuador, and I have found them to be very solid (and the women students remarkably pretty — not a bad thing). Other Ecuadoreans I’ve run across have been remarkably competent and very pleasant people to deal with — in a range of circumstances.

Partly, this is because I rather like a certain in-your-face attitude that seems to be one of the Ecuadorean nationale Eigentumlichkeiten.

But mostly, I like Ecuador because it produces excellent summer hats.

I wear hats because if I don’t, I get a sunburn on my balding pate. I have several, including two [update: make that three; the new one has a very broad brim and is just super] modestly priced Genuine Panama Straw hats. I do not, sadly, boast ownership of a Montecristi. One I bought here in New York; a replacement is hard to find, and beyond my budget. My new one came from panamahatsdirect.com, and is the firm’s “$48 Cuenca” — with shipping, about $65, therefore very competitively priced (about $10-$15 lower than anything even vaguely comparable in New York shops).

Why choose a Genuine Panama hat from Ecuador, rather than a look-alike from the Far East? Why order it from Panama, rather than buying it locally in New York (a town that still has a few hat shops — and legions of stores where hats of less distinction are sold along with miscellaneous other things?

Quite simply, these are The Real Thing. This is a matter of craftsmanship and materials, and just plain looks.

Go to a hat store; look at what’s offered. Pick up the hat; most have a nice solid, stiff cardboard-like feeling. Even most of the real straw hats have this over-starched feeling; the ones marked “Shantung Straw” — made from a paper yarn originally produced in Japan — will certainly feel like that. Go to the local clothing store; pick up the various “planter style” hats offered — some of them real straw, some hard to tell… — and you’ll find the same thing. You might as well wear a hard hat.

Genuine Panama hats are softer. The bodies are very solidly made, and the palm fibers used hold a shape remarkably well, without additional stiffener. The weave is remarkably fine. Many have the nice finishing touch of a back-woven edge, rather than one cut and sewn. [This is more work, and I suspect, just harder to pull off without getting an uneven edge.] This means, among other things, they have some characteristics in common with the felt from which other hats are made. They are durable, they can be shaped, they have a certain liveliness those hard-as-cardboard hats don’t have.

This softness and flexibility means, first, the hat will mold to your head as you wear it. It will be your hat, and no one else’s. Second, it means the initial shape can be changed. Look at the picture:


The left side shows the hat I ordered. The right side shows what I could do with it with 20 or 30 minutes work.

The hat arrived in the standard Panama Hats Direct box — so well sealed I had to call the company to get instructions on opening it. (I saved the box; I fashioned a lid for it; it is as well made as my old Brooks Brothers hat boxes; getting good hat boxes is one tough chore, let me tell you.) It looked just like the picture — a well-ironed, flat brim and a nicely shaped crown. I had ordered the black grosgrain ribbon (this is a hat for business occasions…); the band was nice, with a bow not flattened and the “knot” properly pleated. This was just one fine hat.

But: I like less-well defined dimples; better: I prefer the dimples to arise from such events as “tipping my hat” — a matter of pinching the crown slightly to take it off as a gesture of respectful greeting. I prefer a rather fatter teardrop than Panama Hats Direct offers in its Cuenca models. I am fussy about the way my hat’s brim curls and shapes. So I spritzed with a bit of water, massaged a bit here and there; the result was a hat with a shape that might well pass for something in a 1940’s ad.

In short, I got my look, and my fit, my way.

I get compliments on my elegant chapeaux — this one and others.

Super-starched hats from China and elsewhere (interestingly, Mexico) don’t allow you to do this. (This is also largely true of the fur-felt hats now coming from China as a less costly replacement for the lovely hats of Italy and the — somewhat over-stiff, cowboy-hat-like — items from Hatco. It takes a lot of work and a lot of steam to make those hats work.)

In my view — a person who has worn hats for decades (I like them even when not the mode), whose hats get attention (drawing away from my less than ideal figure…) and compliments — a real Panama hat, direct from Ecuador is a good choice. Of the companies offering “direct from Panama” sales, Panama Hats Direct offers the best combination of price and company performance. Their prices, even with shipping, are very competitive. The quality is very high at all levels. The after-market support is, if anything, better than the ordering process — this is a small firm that makes a fetish of customer satisfaction (what a nice thing!).

I am a very satisfied customer.

By the bye, I have had somewhat similar experiences with other products from our cousins to the South. I recently needed a new portfolio for my trips into college — something small and slim and not made from black nylon. After much looking (and not finding anything exciting consistent with my budget), I stumbled on two items. One was made in Thailand, and it was very nice, but not as nice as older things I have had from the Far East. The other was from Colombia; the leather was Just Right. The lining was Just Right. The manufacture was Just Right. The price was just fine.Why don’t these products get better play? I think it’s a marketing problem. Were I the Ecuadorian economics ministry, I’d register Genuine Panama Hat and Genuine Montecristi (and so on) as trademarks here and in the EU, and I’d sue the crap out of any infringer — with big-time press releases. Other ideas come to mind. One wonders why these rather basic business elements have not been pursued.