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Future of the Beret

French Beret

Laulhere, a 174-year-old beret- maker, is fighting to keep the quintessential French headgear French.

Laulhere became the country’s sole maker of traditional berets after it recently bought Blancq-Olibet, its only French competitor, which was almost 200 years old. Cheaper knockoffs from China, India and the Czech Republic made survival hard for local makers of berets, which have been as much a symbol of France as baguettes and Gauloises cigarettes.

Based in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, where the round and flat woolen hat was invented by shepherds to protect themselves from the Basque region’s damp, Laulhere has joined the frontlines of the battle for the “Made in France” label as foreign-made berets steal an increasing share of a shrinking market. On its website, Laulhere says: “To us ‘Made in France’ still means something.”

“There are berets and there are berets,” said Mark Saunders, the head of sales at Laulhere.  Saunders is an Irishman who has lived in France for over two decades and is married to a French woman whose family has been in the beret business for generations.  “If you don’t want to smell like a sock wearing a wet beret, only our traditional French beret doesn’t retain odors. Small details like that make a difference.”

Laulhere, which had 1.7 million euros in sales last year and didn’t make a profit, expects “to break even this year,” he said.

The company plans to produce 200,000 hats in 2014, up from 160,000 in 2013. Half of its beret production goes to armies around the world. The rest goes to the fashion industry and to traditional wearers of the headgear.

Men’s berets from Laulhere can cost anywhere from 40 euros to 75 euros, while women’s are priced between 20 euros and 95 euros. Imports can cost as little as two euros.

Until the late 1980's, France produced several million berets each year, although with cheaper imports, sales have slid for decades. The nail in the coffin came in 2001 when the French military ended conscriptions, eliminating hundreds of thousands of army orders.

The number of factories in Oloron Sainte-Marie, the town in the Bearnregion where most French berets were made, fell from almost 30 to two: Laulhere and Blancq-Olibet.

The traditional French beret is made with a half mile (800 meters) of merino wool and has a ring of leather inside to help it fit snuggly on the head, Saunders said. It’s waterproof and resistant to ultraviolet light. It keeps its shape even after it’s been rolled.

While factories started making them industrially in the early 19th century, the “beret Basque” was at first a cottage industry, with the headwear made in the homes of shepherds.

It became fashionable for women in the 1930s and turned into a symbol of the French resistance during the German occupation in World War II. It also started being used by armies inFranceand the rest of the world in the 20th century.

The French army, the United Nations and NATO are among Laulhere’s biggest customers. The beret maker is seeking to make greater inroads into the fashion market as armies cut spending. The U.S.army stopped using wool berets in 2011, replacing them with patrol caps.

Saunders says that after he may look into ways to sell the wool-only, waterproof and non-smelly beret to the U.S.army. He’s also seeking coveted partnerships with France’s luxury houses, including Hermes International SCA.  “We have a crazy plan for our berets,” he said. “They’re an icon of France but we want to sell them everywhere.”

Taken from a story by Helene Fouquet, Bloomberg News


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