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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 2, 2003

Hats may help revive our sagging economy

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Daniel Drake of Bethesda, Md., spent $350 on a Panama hat in a Royal Hawaiian Hotel shop last week. It was cheap at twice the price. A top-of-the-line chapeau in Newt at the Royal sells for $7,500.

It struck me that Hawai'i's economy would benefit substantially if men started wearing Panama hats again. Look what happened when aloha shirts caught on. Let us, therefore, take a new look at Panama hats.

A good expert to consult is Andre Auw, a native of Switzerland, 79 going on 80, who moonlights as a Panama hat salesman Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Otherwise, he's a psychologist with his own practice.

Auw can take one look at your noggin and advise you whether you'd look better in a Clark Gable "Gone With the Wind" Southern planter's hat or a breezy Harry Truman fedora. But Auw is adaptable. If you really like the Peter Ustinov style, he's perfectly willing to change his mind.

Drake, an actuarial consultant and professional golfer, admitted that his bank account doesn't stretch as far as $7,500. Did Auw have anything in the $500 range? Presto, out came a snappy fedora that had to be tilted at the right angle and lined up exactly to Drake's nose.

"What do you think?" he asked his friend.

"I love hats," she said.

Drake had his hand on his credit card when Auw presented another hat that sells for $350. You can roll it up and put it in your suitcase. Drake immediately decided that the $350 hat looked better on him than the $500 version, not to mention being able to be rolled up.

This was a new one on me. Tahiti lauhala hats you buy in the Market Municipale in Papeete are rollable. You can sleep on them and they'll massage right back into shape if you wet them. But I didn't know you could take a $350 Panama hat and roll it up.

Don't try it with a $7,500 Sean Connery special. A Panama hat like that you treat like a fine Tongan mat.

The weave is so close the straw looks and feels like linen. It takes seven months to weave a hat of that quality in a remote village, Monte Cristi, in Ecuador. The weavers are old men whose fingers get so stiff they can weave a $7,500 hat for only a few hours. Then they have to weave something easier.

"There are fewer and fewer weavers so the price of Panama hats goes up a little every year," Auw said.

At first, I was dubious that a shop could survive selling Panama hats. Maybe hats are like houses; the expensive ones sell better. The Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism should look into this.

There are pitfalls, of course. Joji Tokoro, one of Japan's top TV comedians, got so excited about Panama hats that he decided to buy the $7,500 one on his show. It didn't fit.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.