multimedia  › Arts and Leisure

Florence’s hat craftsmanship survives fashion trends (and Chinese braids of straw)

by Chiara Beghelli

Since the Sixteenth century, the wheat fields around Florence yielded not only appreciated grains; straw, too, was in demand. Thanks to its fineness, pliability and shine it was “spun” like a precious fabric and used to create hats that are highly appreciated all over the world.
In the Nineteenth century, the straw hats manufactured in Florence took center stage in fashion in Renoir's and Manet's paintings, as well as on ocean liner decks and in big city promenades. They were called “Leghorns,” because they were shipped from Livorno to faraway countries.

This lasted at least until the 1950s, when the straw hat's century-long success began to wane, albeit not so much as to wipe out the companies - almost all over a hundred years old - that are today members of the consortium “Il Cappello di Firenze” (”The Florence Hat”), set up in 1986 by the Industrialist Association of the Province of Florence.

The consortium includes the main companies in the sector, heirs to the long-standing tradition of straw working in the area of Signa, where a museum is dedicated to the art of braiding straw. It is now a limited production, but it mirrors the craftsmanship of “made in Italy” productions, and conveys a tradition now increasingly appreciated worldwide.

The group, which comprises eighteen companies, is headed by Giuseppe Grevi, heir of the hat manufacturing business founded by his great-grandfather in 1875. “The straw is no longer manufactured here, the costs are too high. The braids of straw, which are the foundation for the hats, are made in China; however, they are interwoven here. We went through difficult times in the past, but lately we are enjoying a renewed interest in our creations. And we came together in the consortium precisely to support one another,” concedes Grevi.

The consortium's member companies produce approximately five million pieces per year, with total sales at about €60 million. “We receive many membership applications, but our selection is very strict, even though the company's longevity is not the only parameter,” said Grevi.

The network, in fact, also includes Trendinex, a firm founded in 2001 which specializes in semi-finished products, even though the vast majority of the companies was founded more than a century ago and is now led by the families' third or fourth generation. The oldest company in the consortium is “Michelagnoli Giuseppe & Figli:” founded in 1793, it produces machinery for hat manufacturing.

Tesi Luigi e Guido was founded in 1830 and went on to become very successful in North and South America. Among the companies in the consortium is also Lanitrex, founded by Giovanni Corti, who in 1917 invented a non-crease and rain-resistant fabric, as well as Mazzanti (1935), that also manufactures feathered hats for haute couture brands - first and foremost for Chanel, but also for the Moulin Rouge dancers.

Furthermore, the hats manufactured by the consortium were often used in film productions where they could convey their great craftsmanship, such as those created by Fratelli Marzi, a company founded in 1926. Marzi's hats were featured, among other movies, in “The Queen,” and are on sale at Harrods and Neiman Marcus. Also, hats manufactured by Grevi, were worn by the stars of the movies “Valmont,” “Pretty Woman” and “Tea with Mussolini.”
With such a long history, Mr. Grevi, who today runs two single brand stores, one in Paris and one in Florence, and whose products are also featured in a dedicated space at La Rinascente department store in Milan, is optimistic about the future.

“We have some young interns in the company. Whenever I watch them, I am increasingly persuaded that Italian craftsmanship will be increasingly appreciated by the younger generations, and that its future will be bright.”