Giuseppe Borsalino
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Giuseppe Borsalino

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Thu 12 Mar 2009 1:00 AM

 

What could men like Al Capone, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astair, Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Pope John XXIII and Robert Redford possibly have in common? The answer is that each of them wore-either as a part of his everyday wardrobe or in his line of work-a ‘Borsalino’, the Italian hat that for over 150 years has been known internationally for its quality and style.

 

The man who gave his name to this headwear was Giuseppe Borsalino, born in Pecetto di Valenza (Piedmont) on September 15, 1834. Adventurous by nature but not a good scholar, he left his modest home at 14 to become an apprentice hatter in Alessandria before, at 16, setting sail to prefect his craft in France, then considered to be the homeland of hatmaking.

 

He worked in Aix en Provence and Bordeaux before ending up in Paris, where he worked for the famous manufacturer Casa Berteil, which specialised in beaver fur hats. In 1857, he returned to Alessandria and with his brother Lazzari opened his first factory, which employed 10 workers making about 50 hats a day. Business was so brisk that in 1888 he moved into a new factory equipped with the latest machinery, imported from Manchester, England.

 

With this machinery, his highly skilled workforce was producing over 110,000 hats a year. Never forgetting his own humble origins and far in advance of many other industrialists of his day, he provided his employees with fair salaries, pensions and health funds as well as a school for their children.

 

In love with his trade and always looking to innovate, Borsalino be-came an inveterate traveller. This not only allowed him to successfully open new markets (he never travelled without a substantial sample of hats to show potential clients) but it also enabled him to acquire the finest raw materials for his merchandise, such as the precious fur of Australian rabbits used in making his felt fedoras. A passionate mountaineer, he even attempted to climb Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain in 1894, taking as his guide the renowned Swiss climber Mattia Zurbriggen, who had accompanied Edward Fitzgerald on his expeditions in the Himalayas.

 

On his death at 66 on April 1, 1900, Giuseppe Borsalino left his son Teresio (1867-1939) a factory employing 1,200 workers who produced 750,000 hats a year, two- thirds of which were destined for foreign markets (including bowler hats to Peruvian villages and the fez to Morocco). Under Teresio’s direction, the business experienced its golden age, soon reaching a production peak of two million pieces a year, making Alessandria the hat capital of the world.

 

Teresio Borsalino also became a senator in 1924 and, in recognition of what this one-company town had given his family, he made many improvements to the city, constructing its waterworks and drainage system. He also built an orphanage, an old people’s home and a sanatorium. When he died in 1939 without leaving any children, his nephew Teresio Usuelli (1914-1983) took over the business. Usuelli reorganised the commercial structure of the firm, steered it through the difficult years of World War II and continued its success into the 1950s. However, he could do little to halt the change in men’s fashion that took place at the end of the 1960s, when wearing a hat was no longer considered necessary for a man to be in vogue. This inevitably led to a decline in the company’s fortunes.

 

Nonetheless, in 1970, the Borsalino name inspired a film of the same name starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Its sequel followed in 1973.

 

Today, thanks to a comeback for this fashion accessory, the Borsalino company employs 150 workers producing 90,000 hats a year. In 2006, its steadily increasing turnover reached 20 million euro.

 

To remain more competitive, its current strategy is based on diversifying its product line beyond felt and straw panama hats for both men and women to a men’s clothing line, accessories and perfumes. It has boutiques throughout the world and branches in America and Japan. Most recently it began producing stylish, technologically advanced motorbike helmets, something Giuseppe Borsalino would surely have approved of.

 

In 2006, the new Borsalino Hat Museum was inaugurated in Alessandria, displaying about 2,000 models of the hats produced by the company since 1857 along with equipment used over the years in their manufacturing.

 

BORSELLINO HAT MUSEUM

Via Cavour 84, Alessandria (Piedmont)

Open Saturday and Sunday from 4 to 7pm or by appointment for groups

Tel. 0141/326463

 

 

 

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