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Head of the Class

24-Year-Old Design Prodigy Victor Cornejo Brings Stetson Hats Back into the Ring

January 13, 2002|CLAUDIA KOLKER and Houston-based Claudia Kolker is a former Los Angeles Times bureau chief.

Two years ago, when Hatco--the Texas firm that creates Stetsons--advertised for help, they did so only with the vaguest plan of mustering new blood. Designer Gary Rosenthal, now entering his 70s, was hardly ready to retire. Although he'd launched each Stetson made for almost 30 years, working with an icon tends to energize a man. And Stetson--crown of ranchers, movie cowboys and weekend good old boys--has gleamed with legendary luster since the Civil War. Rosenthal allowed, though, that he'd like someone to do the legwork at the factory.

Meanwhile, Thomas Harris, Hatco's president, was pondering Latino buyers, who had been loyal Stetson wearers from the company's first days. Now, unlike other Stetson clients, they also were a growing population. By the 1990s, the cowboy hat business was what analysts politely term "mature." In other words, the prospects for new buyers had dwindled. With the glory days of "Urban Cowboy" and Texophile Asian tourists long past, Stetson sales had flattened. But previews of the 2000 census showed that Latinos in the U.S. had increased by more than 50% in number.

It might be nice, mused Harris, to get a Spanish speaker on the team.

So Harris hired a young Mexican named Victor Cornejo. The skinny 22-year-old seemed bright. Raised in the slums of Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, he' d worked his way through college in Texas. A nice kid, diligent enough to endure an entry-level job. But Cornejo did far more than just endure. He deluged his bosses with new designs and strategies, all adding a Latino tilt to the hallowed Texas hat. Within a year, he had revolutionized the company, lobbing sales upward 40%. Harris had hired a prodigy. A western-wear savant. A spy in the house of hats.

inside the stetson offices in garland, texas, each wall offers an ode to cowboy culture. Pristine, curvy Stetsons line the entry like gold discs at a record studio. Stills of Stetsoned film stars--John Wayne, James Stewart, Tom Mix--peer manfully along the halls. And greeting anyone who enters is Stetson's Mona Lisa: "The Last Drop," a sunset-colored portrait of a cowboy watering his horse out of his battered hat.

Downstairs, in a factory, hat blockers still shape Stetson bodies one by one. It's much as they were made in 1865, when a sickly Philadelphia hatter named John B. Stetson first headed west to find his health. Intrigued by the Mexican cowboys, Stetson fashioned his own version of their headwear out of matted rabbit hide. A Mexican vaquero bought the ur-Stetson for $5. Mexicans also nudged Stetson fortunes ahead a generation later, during the Revolution: Pancho Villa is said to have bought thousands to outfit his army.

But in the generations after, it was Texans who identified with the hats most closely. In the Lone Star State, a "Stetson is tantamount to the crown of kings," declares Will Howard, head of Texas history at the Houston Public Library. The brand' s heft and profile, he explains, are simply unmistakable. It wasn't parody, precisely, when Lyle Lovett hugged his Stetson in a recent CD photograph. When he sings, "You can have my girl, but don't touch my hat," Texans may smile at the excess. But they appreciate the sentiment.

Few people understand that sentiment as well as Gary Rosenthal. Lean and wry, still piqued by nuances of brim and felt, he knows hats as well as any man alive. That may be why Rosenthal so quickly recognized Cornejo's talent. His new helper, Rosenthal explains, joined a designer's moxie with cultural insight that sometimes dumbfounds his bosses.

Scarcely a year after joining Stetson, for example, Cornejo suggested a hat called La Guadalupana."In Mexican agricultural areas," he told his bosses, "they have a tradition of tucking a little image of the Virgin of Guadalupe for protection inside the hatband."

Why not silkscreen her image right into the silk dome inside a Stetson's crown?

True, the traditional Stetson is a stern affair, devoid of color even on the inside lining. But Mexicans find color perfectly compatible with the male aesthetic. So Cornejo and his mentor puzzled mainly about how to place the image most respectfully. "Talk about tasteful," Rosenthal says. "We didn't put our name anywhere near the picture." La Guadalupana quickly became one of Stetson's top sellers among Latino customers. Next, Cornejo came up with El Azteca. Mexicans, he says, tend to be nationalistic, relishing emblems of their heritage. Lined in blood-red silk and emblazoned inside with an Aztec calendar, El Azteca sold spectacularly.

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