Indiana Jones and the demise of a Brazilian craft

In one of his final interviews, Sérgio Cury Zakia, the late scion of one of Brazil’s oldest hat making dynasties, reminisced about a phone call he received in 1980, "One of my clients in the United States was a motion picture financier and contacted me to create a hat for some character in an adventure movie he was investing in. He described the character but didn't tell me who was playing him nor what the title was. I only found out when I went to the cinema and saw my hat on the screen.” 

The actor turned out to be Harrison Ford and the movie would eventually be titled 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.' Since the film was released in 1981, the Cury family hat business - Chapéus Cury - has sold over 500,000 of those 'chapéus' (hats). 

There have always been conflicting reports as to the exact model chosen to become the Indiana Jones fedora but what is undisputed is that it was a collaboration between British hat maker Herbert Johnson and the Brazilian Chapéus Cury.

Richard Swales, who was manager at Herbert Johnson and fitted Ford for the original Raiders fedoras has stated adamantly in the past that it was an adaptation of what is still sold as the 'Poet' model, although the British hatter has never sold them under the official Indiana Jones license. At the core of the 'Poet' was the high quality rabbit felt from Cury, who would ship raw felt bodies to Herbert Johnson, now sold under the Swaine Adeney Brigg stable of brands in London’s St James's, from where the fusion of old and new world techniques would create a finely crafted top shelf fedora.

Sérgio's grandfather, an Arab Christian manager of a textile factory in Lebanon, became the first member of his family to emigrate to an industrializing Brazil in 1904, fleeing economic persecution and new Ottoman conscription laws. After making his way in steerage on a steam boat bound for South America, the young man landed in the port of Santos and made his way inland along the British built São Paulo Railway. Four years later he had made enough money to afford to bring his children to Brazil to join him. Sérgio’s father would eventually settle in Itu, where Sérgio was born in 1924, and would encourage his adolescent son to go work for his prosperous uncle. 

Sérgio's uncle, 'Dr' Miguel Vicente Cury, a self-confessed hat obsessive, had managed to acquire a hat making factory for a pittance from a German immigrant fleeing the country in 1920 and his factory would go on to become one of the largest in Latin America. Dr Miguel himself, once a lowly sales clerk, would become Mayor of Campinas - São Paulo's second largest metropolis - for two terms (1948-51 & 1960-63) and would be given the most ignominious of Brazilian honours by having a major work of brutalist infrastructure named after him - Viaduto Cury. In the 1950s, with a staff of almost a thousand and surging production, Chapéus Cury reached its zenith and was the third largest hatter in Brazil.

 

 

The golden years

By the 1950s, the American John B Stetson Company was the most successful hat maker in the world, selling more than 3 million hats a year during its heyday. John Batterson Stetson was born in 1830 in New Jersey, the son of a hatter. He headed west in 1860 for health reasons and to join the gold rush in Colorado. While panning for gold, he made himself a large hat from the hides he had collected on his trip. It had a wide brim and a tall crown, which created an insulated pocket of air and could also be used to carry water. Legend has it a wealthy cowboy saw Stetson's hat and offered him a $5 gold piece, making the cowboy the first owner of a John B Stetson hat. 

Stetson returned east in 1865 and created his own company, which produced high-quality hats made for outdoor use. Based on the model he had created for himself, Stetson made a version called 'The Boss of the Plains.' A gifted marketer, he sent samples to merchandisers all over the West, asking for a minimum order of a dozen. As the orders came streaming in, Stetson set up a huge factory in Philadelphia and quickly became the largest hat-seller in the world, courtesy of a formidable supply chain in Brazil. 

During the golden years of Brazilian tailoring and elegance in the 50s, three local hat makers dominated the booming Brazilian market - Chapéus Cury, Ramenzoni and Prada. Ramenzoni, the second largest, was founded in Cambuci in 1894 by Dante Ramenzoni who had emigrated to Brazil six years earlier from Parma in Italy.

At its peak just after the second world war, the factory manufactured over 6,000 hats a day and employed over 1,800 staff. During these years Ramenzoni also started investing in machines to produce its own packaging and labelling for its luxury hats, which quickly became a lucrative business line as they began selling paper packaging to third parties. 

The oldest and most successful of the three Brazilian hatters was Prada, an Italo-Brazilian brand founded several years before the eponymous Milanese marque that would go on to become a global luxury goods juggernaut. Maximiliano Prada and other members of the Prada family emigrated from northern Italy to Brazil in 1870 and eventually established a rural trading post - Casa Prada - in the town of Limeira in São Paulo state, selling everything from dry goods to menswear.

Maximiliano, himself a tailor, cut garments for dandies and was one of the pioneers of tailoring in Brazil, while the enterprising family quickly diversified into various areas including generating and distributing electricity and even refining oils for sale as cooking products. The latter would eventually expand to São Paulo city in the 1930s with the purchase of an olive oil refinery and, ultimately, go on to become the listed Companhia Metalúrgica Prada, which made over $450 million of revenue in 2012 and is now a subsidiary of one of Brazil's largest companies Companhia Siderurgica Nacional - a far cry from the rustic sartorial outpost Maximiliano established in the frontier coffee lands of São Paulo over a hundred years before. 

Agostino (Agostinho) Prada followed his extended family to Brazil from Trento in 1898 and by 1907 he had started making and selling hats out of a small stall next to an ice making factory that the ambitious immigrant had already set up in the garage of his house.  By the 1940s, the sprawling Prada conglomerate would have over 800 commercial interests and 168 industrial establishments in Limeira alone.  So synonymous are the Prada family with Limeira’s economic development that, today, the City Hall is located in the old listed Edificio Prada hat factory. 

Was Agostinho Prada related to Mario Prada, the founder of the more famous Italian luxury marque? Research by the writer of this article has, thus far, been inconclusive. What is certain is that by the time Mario and his brother Martino had opened their first Milanese boutique in 1913 under the name ‘Fratelli Prada’ selling leather goods and imported English steamer trunks and handbags, Agostinho Prada was already selling Prada branded hats and menswear in the booming coffee state of São Paulo in Brazil. As the old Brazilian branding vividly suggests : ‘desde 1876’ ('from 1876’)  implies almost forty years more of heritage than the Italian Prada could claim.

A change of tide

Hat makers fortunes first started to change with the arrival of the motor car, which sounded the death knell for the widespread wearing of hats and the etiquette that accompanied them. Social changes and the rise of the haircut as a fashion accessory did the rest. In America, the hatless young President John F Kennedy was credited with hastening the demise of hat-wearing among men. And so began the long-term decline of a once thriving industry.

Indeed, because of declining hat sales in the 60s, Stetson closed its factory in Philadelphia in 1970, becoming a licensing company to smaller manufacturers which it continues to be to this day.

The UK, another major protagonist in the global hat industry, suffered a swifter fate. The area around southern Manchester had been the centre of the hat manufacturing trade, a spin-off from the wool and cotton-based industries of the north of England. At one time, there were more than 90 factories, employing around 24,000 people. Stockport made felt hats while Denton used rabbit fur.

But the writing was already on the wall for the hat trade. Those who had served in the forces during the war - and been forced to wear headgear of all kinds - decided that going hatless would represent a break with the past. For others, it was said, the inferior quality of the 'demob' hats put them off the item. Producers shut down by the month and everyone scrambled to diversify their businesses away from pure hat making. Even the famous Denton Hat Company moved into knitwear. 

 

Christys' is one of only a handful of hat makers left in the UK. It supplies Lock & Co and Batesneither of whom make their own hats, as well as having its own label. For much of its history Christys' was the largest hat maker in the UK, with over 3,000 staff at one point.  Today the headcount is a lean 30 with a third of its revenues from making hats for the military and police force.

Before the 20th century expansion of the Brazilian hatters, the venerable British shops dominated the Brazilian market. In his comprehensive tome 'The English in Brazil', Gilberto Freyre, Brazil's foremost social historian, drew attention to the British influence on fashion in Brazil and, in particular, the obsession with English hat wearing. The vestiges of the trend live on in the sobriquet still given to the notoriously corrupt local football directors - 'cartolas' ('top hats').

The 1950s saw the three Brazilian incumbents start to diversify their businesses away from headwear with Cury launching a jeans label and Ramenzoni releasing a premium a shirt line - 'Ban Tan'. Chapéus Cury began to focus on exports while continuing to supply the remaining local hat markets - the 'gaúchos' of the deep South and the 'nordestinos' of the North East, where the traditional models remained popular. 

By the 1970s, the steep decline in hat sales forced Ramenzoni to adopt a more drastic strategy. The hatmaking factory, where the brand had built its reputation, was sold to old rival Chapéus Cury in 1972 and was eventually shuttered a few years later during the Brazilian economic crisis.

Management at Ramenzoni took the skills it had learnt from making paper hat boxes and focused on the packaging sector. Today, Ramenzoni is a successful industrial paper company. In 2012 the old Cury factory itself was closed, with some sections of the old edifice protected under new Brazilian heritage building legislature. Chapéus Cury now employees less than 50 people at its new factory in Jaguariúna

Agostinho Prada died in 1975 while his company battled on until 2000, when it still had over 300 employees. In the end, an ex-director of Prada and Lanobrasil, a local wool mill, jointly acquired the remnants of the old Prada, rebranding themselves as Pralana. They still manufacture today but at a fraction of the volume and quality of the proud old marque. 

It seems nobody is immune. In March of this year Italian business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore revealed the 150 year old Italian hat maker Borsalino had filed for bankruptcy protection. In 2013, the once favoured brand of Al Capone, Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Humphrey Bogart and Michael Jackson reported a loss of $24 million, with its only profitable business being the sale of 'religious' hats in Israel. The company's CEO Marco Moccia admitted, "The board of directors are evaluating different options to combat the financial difficulties and enable the company to continue its activity."

Back in São Paulo, the craft scrapes by on sales to cowboys and at parochial events such as the annual festival of the brotherhood of US Confederate descendants. A morbid harbinger for the future of Brazilian hat making arrived a few short months after the death of the octogenarian Sérgio Cury Zakia in 2013. His nephew, one of the last remaining custodians of the old Chapéus Cury dynasty, was shot dead in his garage by car hijackers. He had been trying to protect his wife as she left to attend Mass.