TBY talks to two local Panama hat producers on the history of their business, the hat market, and the promotion of Ecuador though traditional products.
Who designs hats for Ecua-Andino and what makes them special?
ALEJANDRO LECARO I never went to college or university, but I feel like I have a very special nose for business. When I travel to other countries, I know exactly which model could succeed in which market and honestly, I hate to copy. I look at fashion trends, and I like to improve my own models. In my workshops, I tell my weavers what I want. I’m not a weaver; I just have ideas for shapes. We were the first company to present colored, classic-shaped Panama hats. People said we were crazy. That was four years ago. A year after that, Borsalino also presented similar products, but we have a saying here in Ecuador: he who strikes first, strikes twice. Next year we will produce the first eco-Panama sandals. We will recycle some hats that don’t have the quality to be exported and produce sandals. We will present them in Paris in June 2012.
What is the source of Homero Ortega’s success?
ALICIA ORTEGA Homero Ortega is a manufacturer of straw toquillas, or traditional Ecuadorean hats. This has contributed to the spread of the Panama hat and its positioning in the global context during the last five generations of our family—we are the oldest family in the trade. This is a clear sign of experience and reliability, as well as the quality of our products. Homero Ortega, the founder of the company, has been linked to the production of straw toquillas since childhood. Along with his father, he ventured on the El Cajas route to reach the port of Guayaquil, where they sold hats to the merchants who carried them to Panama. In 1972, Homero Ortega P. & Hijos was established as a limited company, and our success lies in our ability to adapt our designs as a sublime form of popular expression. The Panama hat intertwines the manual dexterity, natural nobility, and cultural wealth of the Ecuadorean people.
Where can consumers find Ecua-Andino’s products?
AL We attend between 20 and 25 shows in places such as London, Copenhagen, New York, Paris, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Barcelona, and Madrid. We also attended a show this year in Moscow, and we will be there again in February 2013. I always like to achieve things that people don’t believe I can. Five years ago people would have told me that Russia was impossible, but when we attended Moscow in August 2011, we went to a fair where 250 companies presented only Winter Collection hats, and there was only one booth of Panama Hats, and it was Ecua-Andino. Now we will be going in February, and the organizers of the show have asked us to do a catwalk of Panama hats. We have also been to Tel-Aviv, Johannesburg, and Dubai.
How can the toquilla hat contribute to further promoting Ecuador abroad?
AO The toquilla hat is also known as the “Panama hat,” and in this regard we have to keep in mind a historical fact; the construction of the Panama Canal created a great demand for the straw toquilla hat. Because of the qualities of its fiber—lightness and freshness—this garment became an essential element in the clothing of workers for protection from the grueling Caribbean sun. The hat was internationalized from Panama, and people started to call it the “Panama hat,” even though its origin is Ecuador. That is something we always stress, and we believe that it is important to promote Ecuadorean culture and tradition through this colorful and unique piece of clothing.
How much does the average Panama hat cost?
AL We have hats that go from $20 to $1,000. All of our hats are 100% handmade. The cost depends on the quality of the weaving. The most expensive hat takes 10 to 12 months to finish. We export around 200,000 a year, and sell 12,000 domestically.
What is Homero Ortega’s vision for the future?
AO In the next five years, we want to keep our leading position in the national toquilla industry by strengthening both the stability and innovation of the company, and providing high-quality products to the most demanding local, regional, and international markets. Innovation and tradition play a significant role in our business strategy, and I always stress the importance of intertwining them.
© The Business Year