France’s last beret-maker Laulhere fights for heads and hearts in response to cheap foreign imports

Until the late 1980s, France produced millions of berets a year

Paris

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 Pyrenees, where the round, flat woollen hat was invented by shepherds to protect themselves from the Basque damp, Laulhere has joined the front lines of the battle for the ‘Made in France’ label as foreign-made berets steal a greater 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 and an Irishman who has lived in France for over two decades. “If you don’t want to smell like a sock wearing a wet beret, only our traditional French beret doesn’t retain odours. Small details like that make a difference.”

The fight for survival by Laulhere – rescued in a purchase by French military garment-maker Cargo-Promodis with a €500,000 injection in late 2012 – tells the tale of President Francois Hollande’s competitiveness challenge. French companies struggling to compete and retain market share have contributed to the nation’s slumping economy, which barely grew after 2012 and left unemployment at a 16-year high.

While Mr Hollande promotes broader economic themes, industry minister Arnaud Montebourg focuses on iconic French products and the ‘Made in France’ label to create local jobs.

 

In October 2012, he posed on the cover of Le Parisien magazine standing before the French flag in a sailor’s jersey, wearing a Michel Herbelin watch and holding a Moulinex blender to defend the country’s industry.

In April, he participated in a ‘Made in France’ fair in Paris, touring booths wearing a Laulhere beret.

Laulhere’s Mr Saunders, married to a French woman whose family has been in the beret business for generations, says the company is banking on demand from the high end of the market to revive its fortunes after its bankruptcy in 2012.

Laulhere, which had €1.7m 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 this year, 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 to €75, while the women’s version is priced between €20 to €95. Imports can cost as little as €2.

Global competition has come from berets manufacturers in China, Pakistan, India and the Czech Republic, where the company Tonak produces fashion berets for women.

Until the late 1980s, France produced several million berets each year. Sales slid for decades, with cheaper products made in Asia. 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 Bearn region 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 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.

© Bloomberg

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