Why Is a Haredi Hat Dealer Suing a Prestigious Italian Firm?

An inside look at the legal battle that centers around the lucrative ultra-Orthodox hat market.

"I hit people upside the head, that's my job," joked Yitzhak Meir Ferster as he arranges the latest collection of hats on the display table. The head of "Ferster Quality Hats" reminisced about the days in which his forefathers - who founded the business in Warsaw in 1912 and brought it to Jerusalem - laid brimmed hats atop the heads of David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Zalman Shazar and Menachem Begin.

Now, when brimmed and felt hats are the exclusive domain of Haredi men, Ferster proudly boasts of the many important rabbis and spiritual leaders who have donned the hats from generation to generation.

Ferster, though, is now trying to hit the Italian hat manufacturer Borsalino upside the head. Aside from the fact that it is a prestigious brand that has been providing headwear for the last 152 years to customers all over the world; and notwithstanding the fact that it is a firm that was the subject of a feature film starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, it is also attempting to become the dominant player in the Jewish-Haredi market in Israel.

As part of a continuing legal battle, Ferster filed a NIS 5 million lawsuit in Tel Aviv District Court against Borsalino. This comes after dozens of years during which Ferster sold Borsalino brand hats alongside its own, popular manufactured models that went by the name "Brandolino." A few years ago, both companies found themselves embroiled in a dispute that led the Italian giant to cease offering its hats for sale through Israeli middlemen catering to the Haredi community.

Last year, Borsalino opened its own franchise shop in Jerusalem and another more recently in Bnei Brak. The row led both companies to file lawsuits and counter-lawsuits claiming failure to abide by the terms of their past agreements, financial damages and other infractions.

The bitter lawsuit provides a glimpse into the fierce competition for the heads of the Haredi male and the yeshiva student, a competition that generates tens of millions of dollars each year.

"The hat represents a basic and a very important element like no other within the Haredi public, since this public attaches the utmost importance not only to the quality of the hat that it wears but also to the most subtle nuances in its design and appearance," Ferster's attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

The competition heated up in the weeks leading up to Passover, especially in advertisements in ultra-Orthodox newspapers and message boards within the community. The Italian firm promised new styles and designs for the holiday, using the slogan "Borsalino, with respect." Baron Hats, one of Ferster's Israeli competitors, also advertised new imported styles.

The companies are also working to attract customers from Yeshivas and other Judaic studies institutions by handing out gift certificates and coupons, and every spring a new marketing gimmick is unleashed. Borsalino, for example, invited ultra-Orthodox journalists to its factory in Italy to watch the intricate hat-making process.

"Many people ask why our hats are so expensive," said Mendy Bastomsky, a Borsalino franchise holder in Israel. "After a visit [to the factory], the journalists ask how it is possible for the hats to be so inexpensive."

Ferster manufactures and sells dozens of hat styles made from exclusive felts and lamb's wool. "I am the only manufacturer in the Jewish world," said Ferster. "All the others are simply hat sellers."

A salesman at the Borsalino store in Jerusalem begged to differ when asked about the rivalry between the two firms. "With all due respect, we don't view [Ferster] as competition."