Did you know that Panama hats are not made in Panama? True story, Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador. The reason the hats were given this auspicious name was due to the fact that these hats were traded through the Panama Canal. But if you follow the hat trail, you will find yourself in one of two towns in Ecuador where the toquilla palm grows perfectly for making hats, and that’s exactly where Florencia Gerbi found herself during a surf trip.
“I met a guy that took me to the hat path. There is a town that prepares the straw and they do the harvesting. The particular palm that grows in that area is perfect for weaving. That same palm grows in other places, but it’s not good for making hats. That’s why Panama hats always come from Ecuador,” she said.
The making of these hats date back for centuries and is passed down through the tradition of the hat makers. Over the years the weavers have encountered a variety of challenges that threaten the lively hood of their legacy. These threats include harsh living and working environments for the weavers, low pay, and a new generation that is disenchanted by old traditions. Florencia was inspired by the beautiful hats not only for a business opportunity, but also an opportunity to help preserve the endangered tradition. That is when her and her sister decided to create a hat company that is known today as Greenpacha.
“I’m helping the weavers, because without the weavers there are no more Panama Hats,” Florencia said.
Even though the making of the Panama hats have originated from the ancient times of the Incas, decorating the hats for high fashion belongs to the modern generations of Ecuadorians that span through the ages over the last 200 years. In other words, what we see today is a blend of ancient tradition and modern fashion.
“The one thing is the weaving and the other thing is the finishing of the hats. Finishing the hats includes smashing the straw to make it soft and make the shape, and then adding decorative features like ribbons. All of these things combined make up the complete tradition,” she said.
Florencia learned on her visits down to Ecuador not to confuse the processes of weaving and finishing the hats. She learned that everyone has a specialty and one could not live without the other, but not to confuse the two.
“There are four important families responsible for the finishing [of the hats], most of them live in Cuenca and the others come from Montecristi, where they are known for having the finest hats,” Florencia explained. “They have been doing this for generations. Two of these families still run the business, the rest have been sold off to big companies. I deal with the two families, keeping up with the tradition. They love my approach because it’s a win-win for everybody,” she said.
The families responsible for the finishing help drive the industry by providing hats that meet the current fashion trends. Being innovative and creative with new hat designs is just as important for the survival of the Panama hat as is keeping the fading art of the weaver’s tradition alive.
“What I do with my sister is put an emphasis in the shape of the hat and the decoration,” Florencia said. “I plan to do some unique designer signature hats with Greenpacha with some designer friends that love the brand. I have also been using my sewing machine to create my own designs. It’s creative, but different than what I’m used to, but like anything, it’s going to take practice to master. My goal with Greenpacha is to enjoy this process of creativity and spread the word of a greener time, which means having a healthy life full of art, expression, travel, friends and love,” she said.
Florencia’s hope is that by implementing new and creative designs, Greenpacha will appeal to the younger generations of Ecuador. The idea is that they will start to take interest in the hats, and then hopefully they will be interested in learning the old traditions of weaving. But while Florencia is learning all about the various aspects of the hat making process, her main focus right now is to help the weavers. In the past they have worked with middle men that claim to be in the fair trade business. But the weavers were not happy with the results.
“They were in the fair trade thing and they told me, ‘this isn’t working for us’. They just give us three dollars more. So, that’s why I decided to donate two percent of the total sales from Greenpacha, because that’s solid. I give it back to them and they prefer that because it’s a better benefit for them,” she said.
There are many things to do, but Florencia is dedicated to one thing, helping the weavers get what they need so they can improve their life conditions.
“What they want to do, the most important thing is to improve their life conditions. In order to do that they need to sell hats, because that’s what they know how to do,” Florencia said. “They are not going to change their job, they want to keep weaving and they want to sell more hats. By helping them to improve their working conditions, like buying a new press, hiring more girls that can sew and finish the hats, they can then bring capitalization and meet the demands of the market. I’m trying to focus our help to keep them productive,” she said.
Florencia knows that because Greenpacha is a new business and is still growing that funding the weavers is limited to production right now. But she has hopes that the as the company grows, they will be able to focus more on the living conditions and give back to the children.
“Now because the company is small, the number isn’t significant, but as the company grows, it could be amazing, like constructing a school for weaving,” Florencia said. “Education is so important to change the world. If I had to put my energy into something to change the world, I would put it in education.”
To find out more about Greenpacha, please visit www.Greenpacha.com