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YOUNTVILLE — Panama hats don’t come from Panama. The genuine, jaunty head topper is made in Ecuador, and has been since the 1600s.

In the 1850s, some of the Ecuadoran artisans, who wove the hats from native plants, moved to Panama where they had a better market from travelers — for example, prospectors heading to California during the Gold Rush. When asked where they got their handsome hats, the reply was “Panama.”

One of the most famous visitors to Panama was Teddy Roosevelt. When he went to inspect the construction of the Panama Canal in 1906, he was photographed in his “Panama” hat. So the name stuck.

It’s one of the stories that Mercedes and Fabian Anda told at their new Yountville shop, Montecristi Panama Hats, where the Napa residents are showcasing the hats from their native Ecuador, along with other products from South America.

When she retired from her business career, and children brought them to the Napa Valley, Mercedes Anda said they were searching for an idea of what to do in retirement. While the Panama hats are made throughout Ecuador, she explained, the village of Montecristi makes what are considered the Rolls Royce version — so finely woven, they appear to made of fabric. She bought two boxes of the hats, brought them to their Napa home, and decided that this would be their retirement project.

For several years, they sold hats out of a tiny shop, tucked away on the second floor of the V Marketplace in Yountville. It was not by any means overlooked by visitors. One well-known customer was actor Johnny Depp, who dropped in and bought one of the most expensive models. “Two visitors from Japan recognized him and when he left, they asked, ‘Could they buy the same hat?” Mercedes said. “It was one of our best days.”

When the Andas had the opportunity to move to more visible storefront location on Washington Street, they turned to Napa interior designer Mikuki Yamaguchi, to create a space for them to show, not just hats but other fine South American arts and crafts: the silverwork from Peru, and clothing made from the highly prized vicuña and alpaca fabrics, as well as the ceramics of Ecuadoran artist Eduardo Vega.

After more than three years of working together, a team has completed the new shop at 6496 Washington St., in part of a complex that will soon house the visitor center for Handwritten Wines.

Blending elements

To begin, Yamaguchi said she studied both the shops in Yountville as well as the ones in South America where the luxurious vicuña and alpaca products are sold. “I wanted to highlight her beautiful products but keep a touch of wine country,” she said.

She and Mercedes settled on a color scheme of grays, a neutral background for the products. Achieving a wine country influence was initially easy: “The exterior building facade features 100-year-old wine barrel wood planks,” Yamaguchi said, “When initially installed, the whole building smelled just like red wine.”

Yamaguchi took inspiration both from wine country and the woven nature of the products to create the shop’s “wow” factor. She used Chilewich loose woven fabric to frame the white globe lights that hang from the store ceiling, draping it in the shape of two giant grape leaves.

“We incorporated elements of vine and natural leaf shapes, using that has an airy reflective quality like morning dew in a vineyard draped in the shape of grape leaves, she said, adding that the same, mesh-like material is used by Crate and Barrel for place-mats.

The visual impact of the store, however, comes from details as well as the grand elements: Rather than plastic laminate on the shelves and cupboards, she found a durable paint that mimics metal but can be used on wood. “It has depth to it,” Yamaguchi explained. “It is a little more expensive. We were cost conscious for the project but the two places where we splurged was the paint and the ceiling fixture.”

At the back of the store, Eduardo Vega’s ceramics provide a splash of color, and another visual element, a ceramic mural of vineyards that he created for the Andas.

One small, but effective, detail Yamaguchi likes are the hat hooks, each with a silhouette of the Panama hat. These fill one wall of the store, hats from a variety of Ecuadoran artists, some in colors, with bright bows and broad brims, and others, the classic Panama hat. The Montecristi hats, which cost around $5,000, are in a special glass case, as is the vicuña bomber jacket, ($15,000). There is a considerable price range, however, said daughter Carolina Anda Giranda; those who don’t have to have the same hat as Johnny Depp can find a genuine Panama hat for around $150.

Depp’s framed photograph hangs on the wall above the display, along with other fans of the Panama hat, including Teddy Roosevelt, Placido Domingo, and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. “We made a special hat for her in the fascinator style that she likes,” Mercedes said. “We sent it to her and she sent us this photograph.”

Yamaguchi said she and Mercedes Anda worked closely on decisions. but she also gives credit to the entire team that created the shop, including Ojanen_Chiou Architects, LLP, architect Shen-I Chiou, Luma Lighting Design, and Yergler Construction’s project manager Chad Terry. “Chad was here every day and gave ideas as we worked,” Yamaguchi said. “It is a process.”

For more information about the design, contact Miyuki Yamaguchi Design Studio, 1606 Main St., Suite 201 Napa, miyuki@miyukiyamaguchi.com, 707 637-4924.

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Sasha Paulsen can be reached at spaulsen@napanews.com or 256-2262.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.