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Fashion: The rockin' beret

The Beatles wore the caps. Goldie wears the clothes. Hats off to Kangol, after 60 years at the top. By Tamsin Blanchard
Some brands try so hard to become the next big thing that by the time the product hits the shops it has been strangled by its own hype and hysteria. Other brands quietly get on with their business, and the cult following just, well, happens on its own. They don't even quite know why it happens.

Kangol is one such brand. This year, the Cumbria-based company that for some unknown reason has made a Kangaroo its logo, celebrates its 60th birthday. It has come a long way from the days of the traditional, Basque- style beret that sold for two shillings.

Kangol was the brainchild of one Jakob Henryk Spreiregen, who was born in Warsaw in 1893. Before the First World War, Spreiregen left Poland and moved to France, and subsequently to England where he got a job handling the import from France of Basque berets. In the Thirties, the classic beret was made fashionable by the Duke of Windsor, who wore his at a jaunty angle, and by Coco Chanel. As the beret's popularity increased, Spreiregen saw a gap in the market and set up his own factory manufacturing his own. The name Kangol is thought to have been a combination of the words "angora" and "wool", with a "K" to give it a bit of a ring.

During the Second World War, Kangol won a contract to produce standard- issue caps for the military; the company still supplies berets for the British forces and the United Nations. In the Fifties, Kangol expanded its repertoire by adapting the traditional beret shape. By adding a peak, the company invented a new style of cap and put it into production; it included the 504 (named after its wooden hat block, and still made today) and the "Tropic" cap for summer wear. The hat business began to look after itself, giving Spreiregen, ever the entrepreneur, time to focus on other inventions. His berets are known around the world, but some of his other ideas did not - thankfully - survive beyond Cumbria. There was the Kangol hairdryer that doubled as a heater, and the plastic coffin. The quick- release Kangol knitted terylene car seat belt, introduced in 1961, achieved some success, and Kangol Magnet became the leading name in seat belts at the end of the Sixties.

Caps, however, were what made Kangol's fortune. The brand now has world- wide sales of more than pounds 60m and rising, with licences for sportswear, underwear, bags, belts and watches, all built on the reputation of the headwear.

Uniquely, the name has universal appeal. The Kangol cap is to the hat world what a pair of jeans is to the trouser world. It is easy to wear, uncomplicated, unpretentious and - best of all - inexpensive. Dr Marten's Airwair is the shoe equivalent. Golfers, pensioners, rock stars, rap artists, movie stars, fashion models and other celebs around town are all equally familiar with the Kangol kangaroo, which in fact did not become part of the logo until 1983. It has joined the Lacoste crocodile and the Ralph Lauren polo player as an instantly recognisable logo. After the rap superstar LL Cool J took to wearing his terry-towelling golfing-hat complete with kangaroo, the brand's place in street cred heaven was assured for ever.

At the same time, the company began to build a name for itself in wedding- hats. The society milliner Graham Smith was appointed design director in 1981, and began to make hats that the average teenager or music celeb would not wear for all the tea in China. The two sides of the business have somehow managed to exist on parallel universes under the same label.

Within 60 years, Kangol has grown into a multi-million-pound brand almost by accident. Goldie wears the clothes, Linford Christie wears the boxer shorts, and Samuel L Jackson wears the hats.

Not bad. Not bad at all, for a small beret factory from the depths of the Lake District.