Black Hats for Brooklyn, Made to Precise Order in Spain
ince its founding 127 years ago, the Fernández y Roche factory on the edge of this Andalusian capital has weathered every crisis known to hatters.
Despite the Spanish economic crisis, the Fernández y Roche factory is thriving, thanks to an unlikely revenue base: the sales of thousands of black hats each year to Satmar Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem and Brooklyn.
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 cordobés 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 Brooklyn.
“They are saving us in the crisis,” said Miguel García Gutiérrez, 35, the managing director of the Roche factory, officially known as Industrias Sombrereras Españolas, which operates in an industrial park in Salteras, about nine 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 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 an American 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.