Homero Ortega boasts a family tradition spanning over 100 years, representing a paja toquilla straw hat company that today symbolizes a city’s dedication to the art of crafting a heritage and universally recognized accessory, entirely created by Ecuadorian hands. For more than a century, these hats have adorned some of the world’s most important celebrities, dignitaries, and public figures (from Sean Connery to the King of England!).
Despite officially opening its doors in 1972, the remarkable legacy of Homero Ortega plays a central role in the already fascinating history of these exceptional hats. Let us delve into it.
The “Panama” Hat from Ecuador
Ah, the “Panama” hat! One of history’s great misnomers. Crafted from paja toquilla (an endemic Ecuadorian palm), the famous Panama hat has never been Panamanian. Its rich history dates back to pre-Columbian times on the coast of Ecuador, when natives from the Santa Elena Peninsula prepared palm fiber for weaving into different accessories. During colonial times, the current hat model probably began to take shape. In fact, by mid-19th century, these hats had gained renown in Europe: Napoleon III proudly acquired an original “Jipijapa” hat (named for the region in Manabí where they were made) during the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris.
In the 1830s, skilled paja toquilla hat weavers from the coastal regions migrated to Cuenca, following Bartolomé Serrano’s initiative to combat the region’s economic crisis. This movement turned the city into a production center for these hats, thanks to the skill and dedication of its local artisans. In the 1900s, Ecuadorian vendors seized the opportunity presented by the construction of the Panama Canal to sell this “tropical and elegant” item of sun protection with unprecedented success. These hats then played a crucial role in the Ecuadorian economy during challenging times in the 1940s when they became the country’s second-largest product, representing up to 23% of total exports!
Homero Ortega, a figure in the history of paja toquilla hats, was born in Cuenca in 1916, into a family with a long (already centennial) history in the trade of this iconic garment. His life revolved around the craft. He learned the art and the manufacturing process from a very early age and, alongside his father, ventured on long, sometimes perilous, journeys to Guayaquil to sell hats aboard merchant ships bound for Panama. Few saw this booming industry so first-hand.
A Leader in the Industry
The first “Homero Ortega” workshop was located on Calle Vega Muñoz in Cuenca’s traditional María Auxiliadora neighborhood. It was in this family home where the company’s activities began. The initial connection was established with weavers who produced hats in their rural homes across the provinces of Azuay and Cañar. They wove the hats to a certain point, leaving them “open”; unfinished, they reached Homero Ortega, who, after selecting the best, delivered them to local women to complete the weaving, a step in the process known as “azocado.” The finished hats returned to the factory, where they underwent cleaning, bleaching, and dyeing (if the design required it).
At this stage, the hats looked like bells after drying in the sun, and a “compositor” was required to restore their original form. Using tools like hammers, wooden molds, charcoal irons, and scissors, this craftsman “composed” the hat and then passed it on to “press” it, before it was sent to be “designed”.
The final design has always been central to Homero Ortega, and the creativity of their models exported to various corners of the world lies at the core of their quality and distinction. Today, the variety of Homero Ortega designs is a source of pride for everyone in the company. “The versatility of the paja toquilla hat makes it a unifying element; people of all ages, genders, nationalities, and social conditions wear them,” says Gabriela Molina Ortega. “there’s a style for every occasion, which makes every hat a form of personal self-expression. There’s a hat for the beach, for traveling to Europe, for the country, for a wedding.” Undoubtedly, Homero Ortega has turned the paja toquilla hat into an original and enduring creation.
Commitment to Heritage
Homero Ortega’s success has always depended on their commitment to quality, innovation, and the preservation of an age-old tradition. Under the leadership of Homero Ortega’s descendants, the company has expanded its market, perfected the production process, ensured maximum respect for the environment, utilizing new communication technologies to meet the growing global demand for their hats, always adhering to fair trade principles in their creative process.
Homero Ortega is a testament to Ecuadorian heritage. From its humble beginnings to its transformation into a global brand, the company continues to represent the highest excellence when it comes to the production of paja toquilla hats that are not only authentic but also beautiful, modern, and elegant. Faced with the challenges of an ever-evolving world, Homero Ortega remains steadfast in its mission to preserve heritage, support artisans, and offer high-quality garments to a diverse and appreciative global audience.
The story of Homero Ortega extends beyond the hat itself; it represents the dedication of a family to keep a national treasure alive and well.
Text: Ilán Greenfield
Photos: Carlos Puga / Juan Fernando Ricaurte