Hat-maker Borsalino opens museum in Italy
On April 4, Italian hat-maker Borsalino will inaugurate its first museum in Alessandria, the Piedmontese city where the company was founded, on the very same day in 1857. It is the opportunity for Borsalino to tell its incredible story and that of its legendary hats, which revolutionised fashion. Starting with the felt fedora which, thanks to its innovative, easy-to-handle shape with creased crown and soft dimples, proved immediately attractive to men all over the world, embodying the pinnacle of masculine elegance.
Giuseppe Borsalino was born in 1834, and at the age of 12 he left his family and his native village, Pecetto di Valenza, on Piedmont’s Monferrato hills in northern Italy, to seek his fortune. He found work as apprentice hat-maker in the nearby town of Alessandria which, being located between two rivers, gradually became a centre for this artisanal activity. Four years later, he left for France. After stays in Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence and Bordeaux, his travels took him to Paris, where he completed his apprenticeship at renowned hat-maker Berteil.
His career was akin to that of Louis Vuitton, born 13 years before him, who also left his native village aged 14 to seek his fortune in Paris, where he worked as apprentice to a renowned trunk-maker before founding his own company in 1854. Giuseppe Borsalino did the same three years later, in 1857, returning to Alessandria and starting a business with his brother Lazzaro. “At the time, aristocrats used to wear stiff hats, and workers flat caps. Giuseppe Borsalino understood that he could cater to the needs of the bourgeoisie and to its yearning for elegance. He invented a brand-new type of felt hat, high-crowned but soft, easily handled and transported without the need for huge boxes,” said Daniele Bettella, who is in charge of the museum's narrative content.
It was an instant success. Giuseppe Borsalino, renowned for his talent, was also the first to affix his name in his hats and, from early on, to focus on the international market, setting out to make his mark in the major capitals: New York, London and Paris. Demand was such that in 1888 he built a huge factory on Corso Cento Cannoni, in the heart of Alessandria. The 50,000-square-metre facility on three floors, designed by architect Arnaldo Gardella, used to employ up to 6,000 people, or 70% of Alessandria’s active population at the time. At its peak, on the eve of the First World War, the factory could produce up to 2 million hats per year.
The museum occupies an area of nearly 600 square metres, including the factory’s imposing entrance. The building is owned by the city but is managed by the label via the Borsalino Foundation, chaired by Philippe Camperio, the businessman who spearheads private equity firm Haeres Equita, which bought Borsalino in 2018.
Both the building and a collection of 2,000 hats (augmented by 200 recent acquisitions) were donated to the city by the Borsalino family, when it sold the label in 1994. Since then, part of the premises have been converted into shops and private accomodation, while the rest is home to the University of Alessandria and the museum.
The latter now showcases Borsalino’s most iconic hats, arrayed inside the same wooden display cabinets where the label’s collections were once presented in the hat-maker's offices. The exhibits are clustered in eight themed sections tracing the main phases in the history of Borsalino, a label that exerted a constant influence on the world of hats and fashion for several decades. Under Teresio Borsalino, who took over from his father in 1900, the label won first prize at the Paris Universal Exposition, and stepped up the pace of its internationalisation, diversifying into straw hats with a line of celebrated panamas.
This was when Borsalino began to commission giant advertising posters to renowned illustrators like Marcello Dudovich, Max Huber and Armando Testa. In 1925, Borsalino opened its first store on Corso Roma in Alessandria, still in business with its period wood-panelling. The word ‘Borsalino’ entered into ordinary parlance.
From the 1960s, the label was faced with the inexorable decline of head-coverings, but experienced a strong revival thanks to cinema. Borsalino hats have always been the favoured choice of politicians, celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway, and Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart, who wore Borsalino on red carpets and on the big screen. As did Marcello Mastroianni in 8½ by Federico Fellini, and Robert De Niro in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.
“With their creased and hollowed shape, Borsalino [hats] created a play of light and shadow that was ideal for film. Great actors and directors loved this accessory. [Borsalino] has never had to pay for its products to feature in a movie! In 1970, when Jacques Deray asked to give his film starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo the title Borsalino, the company gave permission, asking only that ‘Borsalino’ be written on the film’s poster in the logo’s cursive script. The movie’s resounding success gave a renewed boost to sales," said Bettella.
For a deeper immersion into the Borsalino world, the museum puts at its visitors’ disposal an app that contains information, illustrations and anecdotes on the models that marked the Borsalino story. The collection includes a specimen of the famous sky-blue bowler hat worn by the hostesses of US airline Pan Am, which has become a cult object. There is also no shortage of fashion partnerships, exemplified by models made in collaboration with, among others, Missoni, Versace and Valentino. The museum also bears witness to Borsalino’s links with design and even religion, exhibiting orthodox Jew headdresses and hats worn by popes.
“The museum is keen to illustrate the roots of Giuseppe Borsalino's ideas, showcasing the history of hat-making from 1857 to the present through some 2,000 models. At the same time, beyond the museum experience, this place is designed to be accessible to the city, connecting with the local community by hosting exhibitions, concerts and events,” said museum director Angelo de Filippo.
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