The Rarified Art of Panama Hats

Bill Cain has turned his personal obsession into a lovable business


The Rarified Art of Panama Hats
By Appointment April 13th, 2018

Take a stroll along bustling Joo Chiat Terrace and you’ll find a curio of a shophouse called Hat of Cain. Surprise, surprise, it’s a cushy little space of specialty hats.

Specifically, it’s a little paradise of authentic Panama hats, as curated by owner Bill Cain.

The ability to build an authentic Panama hat has become a dying art, so much so that UNESCO has certified the skill as an Intangible Cultural Heritage — a handle that celebrates social practices, performance arts, and artisans.

Hat Of Cain along Joo Chiat Terrace

Within his store, Cain displays the original signage from Harry’s bar that was entrusted to him by the owner Photo by Jasper Yu

Contrary to its name, the Panama hat originated in Ecuador. Cain — a trained optician — discovered it while he was on holiday in Hawaii as a young gentleman. 

As he visited more countries, so did his collection of hats. “Whenever I’d go somewhere, I’d buy a hat — a cheap one so I could keep collecting them,” said Cain. “And from then, I have always been intrigued.”

His intrigue soon turned into a hobby that he enjoyed. “What can I do with something I love? I wanted to educate and give people an experience with something I love.” elaborated Cain on how it first began.

Cain says that it takes 12 people to make one Panama hat. The weavers begin by harvesting the palm, to “peel away the leaves” to reveal the tougher shoots.
Once dried, the weavers split them into various thicknesses and start weaving.The finer the weave, the more time a weaver spends crafting the hat. For the Superfino hats that he sells, he revealed that a weaver could spend up to six months making one hat.

Hat of Cain

Cain proudly displays the unfinished oil painting by his great-grandfather in 1910, amongst his collection of hats in his store Photo by Jasper Yu

Besides readily sharing his intimate knowledge of Panama hats, Cain also provides clients with thoughtful hat care advice.
The handmade creations enjoy the humid temperatures found along the equator. Left in dry or wet environments, however, and your Panama Hat will not be happy. 
“A hat like that gets so soft and supple that if you leave it exposed to the dry environment it can crack,” says Cain. He also warned that should the hats get wet, they will lose their shape.
“I reshape them the best I can but if a hat does get abused, it does have a (limited) lifespan. So when you buy a hat like a Superfino, you have to really take a little bit of extra care”.

Cain is wearing a soft, Italian linen shirt, one that he also sells at the store. The affable Canadian insists that a hat is more than just an accessory. “It defines your character,” he says. “When you put a hat on, it can shape your mood and be the one thing that you need to elevate your outfit.”

It was this passion that led him to open a store in Singapore. He tried to look for a place on the island that offered more information on Panama Hats. When none existed, he decided to create his own hatty enclave.

Hat of Cain

Hidden away from view, is a bar that houses Cain’s personal collection of whiskey and cigars which he offers clients who come in for private appointments Photo by Jasper Yu

“I wanted to create something that makes people feel good,” says Cain, who runs a relocation service by day, “It is a forgotten accessory that I am working hard to reintroduce.”

Cain admits he likes hanging out at the two-storey shophouse. He is king of his domain there. He sips whiskeys on the benches outside, and entertains guests on the sofas inside. It’s a precious man cave for this free spirit. 

Cain and his Danish wife Charlotte have acquired a busload of rare souvenirs from more than 35 years of travels around Asia. There’s a beautiful antique desk, an unfinished oil painting, and two bowler hat lamps tastefully placed around the store – standing out, but never sticking out.

“I don’t want people to walk into a sterile environment. Shopping has become sterile,” he says of the service he provides. “Hat of Cain is all about the experience. It’s about coming in and feeling good about yourself, feeling good about what you have, and learning a little bit along the way.”

Clients receive Cain’s undivided attention when they set an in-store appointment. Each fitting begins with a chat – he gets to know the individual over a cup of Joe, or whiskey and cigar from his personal collection.

There is nothing he loves more than making people happy and he does so through his business. “Ultimately what I want is a happy client leaving,” says Cain.

“My day job is moving people for big banks and human resources. If I’m not upsetting the client then I’m upsetting the human resources” he explained. “It’s a very negative environment. Hat of Cain to me is my little pearl, of nothing but enjoyment.”

“I know what I’m selling and delivering to somebody. If they are not happy with it, it’s only a straw hat.”

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