Aghaaˈ Hat Co. is a Native-made and woman-owned company in El Paso, Texas. Cynthia Gutierrez-Kräpp states that her, “journey into hat making and beading is an act of reclaiming her ancestors history and traditions. All hats are handmade, hand creased, hand sewn and made of rabbit fur, felt, or repurposed vintage beaver fur felts. One hat can last a lifetime.” You can visit her studio at 615 Montana Avenue Space A in El Paso.
Nico Silva (NS): Will you describe your professional and personal background, including the experiences that have led you to start up your hat and creative company?
Cynthia Gutierrez-Kräpp (CK): I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and I’ve also worked as a display artist for different retail stores in NYC. I have always been interested in fashion design, which helped with my display artist career. With that background and understanding, I was looking for and wanted a very high-end hat in the open crown style, but could only find some in the $800-$1200 range. I had a friend at Purl SoHo, a very well-known yarn store, that gave me the quickest millinery lesson ever, which got me started, and I wanted to begin to embrace my Indigeneity.
NS: What led you to come back and call the southwest your home?
CK: After my father died, I felt like El Paso —the land — called me back. It was time to come home.
NS: So what is the meaning or story behind the name Aghaa’?
CK: It means hair or wool of any animal in Navajo.
NS: What challenges and opportunities have you faced with this unique art practice of the Aghaa’ Hat Co?
CK: Of course it takes a lot to make hats (e.g., money). It’s been a slow and growing process, but it’s not been a bad thing. Great things have been slowly happening and falling into my lap. Interviews like this one and support from El Paso has gotten me far.
NS: Your hats are true wearable art. They are a statement of heritage quality and the countless years and capital you have invested into this endeavor, and not all hats are created equal. Is there something tangible that a layperson wouldn’t know about getting a hat specifically fitted and made for them?
CK: The appreciation of the amount of work that goes into the hats. The dedication and time it takes to make a hat with them in mind. Every head shape is completely different. I’ve had customers say “no hats fit me,” but in reality they need a hat for their head shape.
NS: To keep the hats as sustainable and long-lasting as possible you have chosen to use felts, such as repurposed animal felt. Could you explain this decision in material and sourcing?
CK: I love beaver felt.. I have read the history of felts, pelts, and I love that felt because of its longevity. But it has been over-sourced, and I don’t feel comfortable buying new beaver felt. I would love to make a full transition to repurposed beaver felt, but sourcing is a challenge and the price point is higher, so It’ll happen slowly, and I can repurpose the felt by cleaning it up, reshaping it, and giving it a new life. Because of the longevity of beaver felts, a hat made from them will have a lifetime with someone.
NS: So how does the process go from a customer making an appointment to getting their hat? Approximately how long should a person expect to wait for their one-of-a-kind piece?
CK: They message me or make an appointment. When they come in for their appointment we go over color, style, brim, width, hat band, initials, crown height, and customizations, and it takes about an hour. Customization and personalization options are endless. Currently, the wait time to receive the hat is about two months.
NS: Something I really enjoy about the U.S.-Mexico border region is the feeling of collaboration and support of fellow artists. Your shop is housed in a shared space called Cult Studios. You have built a community in this space with other creatives, including metalsmiths, ceramicists, and other artistic producers. (I also love the tagline: Cult(ivating) creativity in the sister cities.)
Could you tell us how Cult Studios happened and what you envision for its future, and the El Paso art scene/infrastructure.
CK: It happened because Jess Tolbert (Assistant Professor of Metals at the University of Texas at El Paso) and I wanted a studio/artist space. I had my idea of a hat studio, then a shop to host people, and I wanted it to be somewhere that people may have not heard about. Cult is not all mine either — myself and other creatives at Cult host classes, which we will continue to do. Cassandra Adame has a ceramic studio and class, and I think El Paso needs more spaces.
I do go to Cinco Puntos, I like that small, quirky space and I think it’s really cool what artists will do with that space. I am one of the cohorts for the Chihuahuan Desert Cultural Fellowship that La Semilla Food Center offers, which ends in December for me. There need to be more fellowships like this that support all mediums.
NS: I also want to celebrate that I see you supporting the arts in El Paso whenever you have time. Sometimes it’s hard to get artists out of the studio and into the galleries and museums to support other artists. What have you been enjoying lately in your spare time when you aren’t working on hats, beading, or other projects?
CK: My spare time is my artwork, and I am always working on my artwork. I have been creating maps that I have been bead weaving, and making clay beads to make a large beadwoven migration map.
NS: Another trend I am seeing is that many artists are providing community education/experiences to all ages, including families. Could you tell us about your workshop series? Beading and being in community sounds like a perfect weekend activity.
CK: There are some classes that I teach personally, and other classes where I invite guests to come in and teach. I do introduction to beadweaving, embroidery, knitting, and more because I love textile art. I feel that I need to pass on traditional work in order for people to teach their friends, siblings, and others. It’s a lot of fun and it’s also exciting to have something that you created. Each class runs about three hours. I have students that will post their new work on social media, which keeps me going.
NS: Speaking of community, due to demand didn’t you recently hire a studio intern? Could you explain how that has been going? How has it been passing the cultural knowledge to someone else in that context?
CK: It has been going great. It is a lot for a person to learn. It took me a couple of years to get my hat-making skills right. I am slowly passing that knowledge onto my intern. It’s a lot to remember and do. It has been easy to share my skills with them, the knowledge is not weighing on me anymore. To think that a skill could die with me is a lot to hold and carry, and now it can continue.
NS: Do you have upcoming events or are you available for special events? Any previous events you’d like to tell us about?
CK: We have classes set up for January. A possible “Meet the Artist” is in the works. The topper of all events was our 1.5 year anniversary celebration. In our past events we have invited Desilu Wine Co to provide wine tastings and I have offered my handcrafted mulled wine for clients.
NS: Anything else you would like to add?
CK: If you are ever in El Paso, stop by for a visit or make an appointment, and If anyone has questions feel free to email me: [email protected]
Aghaaˈ Hat Co (615 Montana Avenue Space A, El Paso) is open Tuesday and Wednesday by appointment only; Thursday-Saturday 12 pm-5 pm MST.
Nicolas “Nico” Silva is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, a licensed master social worker, artist, writer, and envisions a future where the arts and artists are supported to their fullest potential. You can follow him on Instagram @nicosilvasw.