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Black hats for NYC Orthodox Jews, made-to-order in Spain
Despite the Spanish economic crisis, a hat company is thriving, thanks to an unlikely revenue base: the sales of thousands of black hats each year to Satmar Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem and the Brooklyn borough of New York City
The New York Times
SEVILLE, Spain — Since its founding 127 years ago, the Fernandez y Roche factory on the edge of this Andalusian capital has weathered every crisis known to hatters.
It surmounted the 1930s "hatless" trend that eschewed fedoras. It survived the sliding popularity of the birettas and saturnos worn by Roman Catholic priests. And, now, it is weathering a decline in Spanish sales of the most elemental symbol of Andalusia, the stiff-brimmed cordobes hat favored by horseback riders and the occasional bullfighter.
But despite the Spanish economic crisis, the hat company is thriving, thanks to an unlikely revenue base: the sales of thousands of black hats each year to Satmar Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem and the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
"They are saving us in the crisis," said Miguel Garcia Gutiérrez, 35, the managing director of the Roche factory, officially known as Industrias Sombrereras Españolas, which operates in an industrial park in Salteras, about 9 miles outside Seville.
"We have an important market in Spain for traditional hats, but with the crisis those sales have fallen for the last three years, between 20 and 30 percent. But our exports are rising for hats for Orthodox Jews."
The business is flourishing even though Andalusia's unique artisans are suffering as demand falls in weak domestic markets. That includes everyone, from third generation artists who make "borlas" — the silken tassels that swing from elaborate religious floats — to families that embroider robes for statues of the Virgin Mary paraded through Seville during the city's all-important Easter week activities.
The Satmars, one of the largest Hasidic sects in the world with more than 150,000 members, left Hungary and Romania after World War II and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, their main stronghold. There are also communities in Jerusalem and London.
The Spanish factory began supplying hats to the group's enclaves in Brooklyn in 1980, after a U.S. hat-maker shut down and a Brooklyn store, Kova Quality Hatters, started looking for new manufacturers.
Today, the factory still produces traditional monteras for bullfighters, a stable niche market, and plumed, dress military hats made from a collection of more than 2,000 wooden molds.
But its growth industry is the basic black felt hat, selling more than 12,500 of them a year — largely purchased by the growing Satmar sect. More than 70 percent of all their hats are exported to the United States, England, Japan, Belgium and Israel.
The hats for the Orthodox Jewish market are not listed in any catalog or website. The three popular models make distinctive fashion statements summed up by their names: Bent Up, Snap Brim and the Clergy, which lacks a crease in the crown and is bound around the brim.
"It may seem like they are all very similar black hats, but actually this group has its own fashions," Garcia said. "Styles are constantly evolving with a crown that is higher or lower or a brim that is wider or narrower."
Those barely perceptible differences in plain black hats are important markers, according to Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, an ethnographer and the curator of a popular exhibit that is drawing 800 people a day at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on the lives and customs of Hasidic Jews, including the Satmar sect and their hats.
Some groups wear hats with satin ribbons around the crown that fold into a bow on the right side while others wear it on the left, said Muchawsky-Schnapper, adding that these differences reflect the choices of groups' leaders and members. Brims are a decisive feature.
In the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Albert Ehrman is the second generation in his family to run the half-century-old Kova Quality Hatters from a brick storefront. He travels each year to southern Spain with his wife, Miriam, to personally inspect the Clergy hats, the most popular with his Satmar clients.
This summer, he spent hours with a small metal ruler, measuring hat brims for uniformity and demanding a "good, sharp edge" for the Clergy, which lately have been narrowing and selling for up to $175 in the United States.
The factory is equipped with rare wooden, antique combing machines that date to the turn of the last century and are used to produce felt made from rabbit, hare and beaver furs. Most of its 40 employees learned their skills at the factory because there are no classes for milliners.
In the summer, when the air is dry, the felt is shaped into crowns and stiffened with a golden resin from India, before being steam-molded into shape. Seamstresses add hatbands, ribbons and labels, some on a vintage Willcox and Gibbs sewing machine.
"We try to take the bugs out of the system," Ehrman said, his voice carrying above the factory clatter. "Our customers are much more particular than the people in the factory. The shape should be just right. When they wear the hat, they want it to have a crisp look, not just a soft look like you wear wherever it lands."