The Hunt for the World’s Best Panama Hat with Nick Fouquet
Story by Kent Anderson
My buddy Nick Fouquet is a well known hat maker in Venice Beach, California. Not too long ago, he called me and asked if I had any interest in joining him on a trip down to Ecuador to find the world’s best Panama Hat. Before he could say anything else, I said, “of course!” When he told me why he was going down there, I knew straight away that I had to document the trip.
Most people don’t know this but Ecuador is where Panama hats are made. They’re only called “Panama” hats because when the Panama canal was being built Americans wore them.
Journey Through Ecuador
Our first mission was to find where the best weavers lived. After asking around we learned there was a large hat-weaving community at a particular city in the mountains called, Cuenca. Cuenca is one of the oldest cities in South America and at one point the conquistadors thought Cuenca could be the mythical city of gold, El Dorado.
Cuenca was a bit of a mystery. We visited several stunning cathedrals, walked through cobblestone streets and browsed the many small outdoor markets.
However, much like the conquistadors, we came away empty handed. The hat-weaving community turned out to be factories where they mass produce the hats. In fact, most of the hats you would get at any island theme store, probably comes from Cuenca. But that’s not where the best straw come from. We found out the best straw hats come from Montecristi on the coast.
There’s just less people down there that actually make the hats, I guess the difference is in Cuenca one person can weave a hat in a couple hours, whereas in Montecristi, they use such thin straws, they’ll spend months making one hat.
Theres only a handful of guys who still do it and we met the guy who makes the actual best straw hats in the world. He is without a doubt, world renowned, the best straw weaver. We brought a translator down there with us and interviewed him.
World’s Best Hat Weaver
Nick purchased a dozen of the woven shells that he’ll take to L.A. and shape into bespoke hats for his clients. As Nick put it, “He’s pretty old and after he passes away there may never be hats made like that ever again.” His son weaves hats too, but he is more into making more quantity and less quality.
After the trip, Nick and I discussed doing a whole series, where we would travel around the world, finding the person behind the best craft jewelry, belts, accessories, etc. There is an interesting story behind each of these hand-crafted works of art. Nick for instance, he’s not just making a hat, he’s creating a work of art, which is why people like Lebron James and Madonna buy his hats. Sure they look great, but there is so much heart that goes into each one.
Featured image by Scott Witter Photography