A small office space with a white facet and tic-tac-toe windows looks out on the corner of Montana Ave. and North Ochoa St. This space is Aghaa’ Hat Co., Cindy Gutiérrez-Kräpp’s locally-owned business. Aghaa’ Hat Co. provides entirely handmade hats, from the molding of the leather and pelts to the hand-braided hatbands.
Gutiérrez-Kräpp was born in El Paso but traveled and lived from coast to coast. Moving to California then back to El Paso, then, finally to New York to study fashion design at Fashion Institute of Technology. It was there that she made her first hat, a spark that would eventually light the fire in her to turn hat-making into a business.
She said, “I wanted a specific style, I wanted an open crown. And I was looking around and they were about $800 to $1,000. So I thought, ‘why don’t I try to make one on my own?’”
The story of Aghaa’ Hat Co. is a DIY story. Gutiérrez-Kräpp had a friend with millinery experience, watched YouTube videos, then went to the hat supply shop in New York. She said it all snowballed from there.
People started asking her about her hat, and she started making and selling them. What took more time was accumulating the necessary materials.
“I only had so many hat blocks. It’s taken me about five years to collect what I have now,” Gutiérrez-Kräpp said.
She left New York missing her hometown and cultural roots. So after 20 years of living in New York, she moved back to the Sun City. It was in El Paso that she started working out of her own studio, making about four hats a month on her own.
“I loved [New York] until I was just sick of it. You know, there comes a point where you just feel you’re in this machine and you don’t wanna be a part of it anymore and that’s why the decision was to come back,” she said.
“It’s a huge significance [moving back to El Paso]. It is reconnecting to my indigenous roots, to the loss of not learning traditions. It’s going back to being proud of who you are, showing your beadwork or your pride in your hat, or a story that I try and tell on hatband whether it be bead weaving or leather tooling. It’s embracing that in all of the crafts that I do. They all have that in mind, at least for me. And I want people to see that, and if they come in with that in mind, I want them to feel proud when they put their hat on and proud of who they are.”
Pins & Needles
Before Aghaa’ Hat Co., Cindy Gutiérrez-Kräpp had another business, called Pins & Needles. This business, she explains, focuses more on the teaching aspect of her work. Along with creating her products, she also taught classes at the El Paso Museum of Art, the El Paso Museum of History, and the El Paso Museum of Archeology.
In essence, her work has always centered around a love “love of textiles.” What she picked up teaching workshops and working under Pins & Needles turned into Aghaa’ Hat Co.
“They kind of meld together because what I learned in becoming Pins & Needles is now in the hats. So like weaving, and bead weaving, and embroidery and all that kind of stuff now translates into the hat-making,” she said.
Aghaa’ Hat Co. runs on quality materials and fabrics that pay homage to her roots and her culture while also being durable and tell a story.
The arrangement of hats and accessories that line up at Aghaa’ Hat Co. feature handwoven beads and fabrics, leather braids, peyote stitching, as well as repurposed rabbit and beaver felts. Gutiérrez-Kräpp said that the felts “already had another life.”
In the world of fast and cheap fashion, Aghaa’ Hat Co. runs in the opposite direction. To start, prices run higher than something you could buy at a chain store. But competition such as Star Western Wear and Cavender’s start at $300 and can run up to $1,000 or more.
Cindy Gutiérrez-Kräpp said Aghaa’ Hat Co. prices start similarly, starting at $325 with a simple hat band. But there are some differences in accessibility.
“Some people will say that’s too expensive. But I’ve never had someone say that’s too expensive and just be negative. It’s more like ‘oh, that’s very expensive but I can see why.’ And that’s great. Everything is done by hand. Steam, hat blocks, there’s no machines,” she said.
To begin with, Aghaa’ Hat Co. only asks for half payment upfront. Gutiérrez-Kräpp credits this to her wanting clients to have something that they can be proud of, will represent them, and that if taken care of properly, will last a lifetime she said.
Additonally, the craftsmanship and narratives told in each hatband are based on Gutiérrez-Kräpp’s impression of each individual client.
“So for one, I made a hatband and it was a story of the land- because we have land out in Sierra Blanca- and how it felt to be there. Whether it be coyotes always coming around when you’re camping out there or all the cacti, the mountains, the sky, the water, those are a part of that hatband.”
While every hat at Aghaa’ Hat Co. is made personally by Cindy Gutiérrez-Kräpp, she does work with other artists and creatives to create the final products that are her hats. She works with other artists to add turquoise, silver, and some weaving.
“I also work with another artist [Leslie Ann Swanson, @silverspurdesigns] here in El Paso. She’s not native but she has been working with me, creating real pieces of silver and turquoise, pieces to add to hatbands. So it adds even more special work that goes into making a hatband for a client,” she said. “I also work with Jess [Jessica] Tolbert. She’s an Assistant Professor of Metals at UTEP.”
“I also have a weaver who I do ask to weave for me. Her name is Becca Vasquez (@_bvaz) and she is an amazing weaver so if I need a handwoven hatband I will have her make that for me.”
In the brief time that Aghaa’ Hat Co. has existed, the business has expanded in sales three-fold, selling about four hats a month when it was a home studio-operated business and now selling about 12 a month in the three months that the business moved downtown.
“I really need help. It’s getting a little overwhelming to do everything,” said Gutiérrez-Kräpp as she explained the recent addition of an apprentice.
After appearing on local news station KTSM’s “Chuco Inspirations”, Aghaa’ Hat Co. started receiving a lot of attention. Cindy Gutiérrez-Kräpp anticipated a surge in business but what she didn’t anticipate was the foot traffic hanging around her home.
So even during a pandemic, she decided to make a move.
She explained, “well, I came out on Chuco Inspirations which I was so grateful for, it was so fun. But people started showing up at my house because I was working out of my studio at home and that got a little disturbing so I decided to make the next jump, get a space”.
And the space has worked out. So much so that Gutiérrez-Kräpp had to cut store hours so she could have time to work on making the hats, a process she tells her clients to expect to wait for about four to five weeks.
Currently, the store is only open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays. Tuesdays through Thursdays are her workdays, an ideal place to focus.
She explained her hours saying “because I anticipated that people would start coming in and they did. So if I was trying to get work done, it would be very hard to dedicate time to just the hats. So Tuesday through Thursday, I’m working only on hats. Friday and Saturday, I’m working on hats but I feel more comfortable working and not feeling stressed out that I’m ignoring [people who come in].”
Story and photos by Antonio Villaseñor-Baca