Interview & Photography by Rikesh Chauhan
From Canada to Singapore by way of Ecuador, it’s safe to say Bill Cain has led a pretty fascinating life so far. After thirty-six years in the corporate world, he upped sticks to begin a new career as a proprietor of Panama hats in Asia. We caught up with the founder of Hat of Cain in Florence, to talk about how it all came about, what’s in the pipeline and of course, his love for cigars.
What’s your favourite cigar of all time?
The Montecristo Petit No. 2. The big gauge, excellent draw, and the smooth taste is delightful.
Take us through your career, and how Hat of Cain came to be…
After thirty-six years of corporate life, I decided to put that lifestyle behind me to follow my passion for the Panama hat. As a kid growing up in Canada, I saw my dad go to work every day wearing a hat of some kind, and this stuck with me. I have always loved wearing hats, and living in Asia, it was the perfect weather. However, I found it difficult to find the original Panama Hats. Then that a-ha! moment came, and Hat of Cain was born. I reached out to a good friend in Ecuador who introduced me to a few suppliers. From there, I decided to take my passion to the next level by immersing myself into the artistry and craftsmanship. I travelled to Ecuador to gain a better understanding of the process of Panama hatmaking. My first shipment started out with 70 hats, opening for three hours on Saturdays, selling through word of mouth. The business grew steadily and today we operate out of a beautiful shophouse in Singapore, with over 70 styles in our Salon, and we also ship hats around the world.
Bill Cain enjoying our EGM custom-blend cigar
What are the things to look for in a quality Panama hat?
The biggest thing to look for is the consistency in the weave and the overall finishing of the hat, paired with a nice headband. Hats are graded from a grade 1 to as high as grade 40 and beyond for a Super Fino, and are priced accordingly. The higher the grade, the more expensive the hat. I prefer a medium-grade, between 12 and 20 Cuenca weave, as they look good and keep their shape. One does not find a Panama hat, the hat always finds you.
Genuine Panama Hats aren't actually made in Panama... so why do they have that name?
They are woven and made in Ecuador. The name ‘Panama Hat’ is attributed to the following: firstly, back in the day the Panama hats were traded via the Isthmus in Panama, and were therefore coined the Panama hat because of that being the point of sale, rather than the country of origin. Secondly, the construction workers and engineers of the Panama Canal used the hats from Ecuador for sun protection, and in doing so, inadvertently christened them Panama. Finally, and probably most famously, when Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing this style of hat whilst visiting the construction of the Panama Canal, a Washington Post journalist wrote, "The President with his Panama hat."
Cain in Florence, wearing a Hat of Cain Panama hat
What have you done recently, for the first time?
Hat of Cain has reached a level of global awareness, I felt it was very important for me to expand my retail offerings with other fine products to compliment the hats. I attended Pitti Uomo in Florence this Spring, where I was able to meet and expand my network. The trip was very rewarding and a must-do if you are running a men’s fashion business.
What's your favourite city and why?
Rome is my favourite city, it’s a lovely walking city with incredible architecture and food. Although I don't speak a word of Italian, I just love the vibe of the city.
Which menswear brands are you enjoying right now?
My two new go-to brands, for the time being, are ETON Shirts, out of Sweden, and Sand Copenhagen. These two brands suit my style best.
What's something always worth paying for?
I have a few: a genuine Panama hat, a classic timepiece and a good pair of leather shoes.
Favourite place to smoke a cigar?
I will smoke a cigar anywhere I can, but for me the most essential aspect is to take your time (never rush a smoke) and smoke in a quiet place with a good friend. A nice drink, too, always adds to the pleasure.
What's in store for 2022 and beyond?
To continue to grow the brand globally by sharing and educating people about these beautiful handmade hats, and to revive the artisanal Panama hat culture. It is important to support the artisans who have been making these hats for generations and depend on this craft for their families’ livelihoods and future. Hopefully, this craft will continue to be handed down for generations to come. My objective is to revive the Panama hat, one head at a time.
Keep an eye out for more from our Smoke Speak series, with some of our favourite people, and let us know who you would like us to feature next. For all your Cuban cigar needs, be sure to explore our collection now.