The iconic beret of France was born from the land, not from industry. It is part of the heritage and local savoir-faire….
You will probably think this is very cliché, but if you were to picture a typical French man, he is very likely to be sitting on his old bicyclette, a baguette under his arm and a beret on his head. But, it’s not just a cliché, the beret is a strong cultural icon of southewest France and every generation shares this pride. It brings together so many qualities needed for life in the country. On a practical level it is waterproof. It doesn’t crease, is foldable, protects from the rain, the cold and the sun. Aesthetically it demonstrates an individual identity, depending on how you wear it.
Few realise, perhaps thanks to the Paris stereotype in movies, the beret (from Gascon word ‘berret’) is in fact from the Bearn, in the Pyrénées. The beret was born from the land, not from industry. It is part of the heritage and local savoir-faire….
How to make a real French Beret
It takes two full days to make a traditional, authentic beret, sometimes longer, each item being a unique piece with its own adjustments and checks. Traditionally using pure Merino virgin wool, the dying process requires a mixture of various pigments. It takes enormous care to make sure the dye ‘takes’ evenly across the whole of the wool. Every beret is checked over and over to make sure the colour is perfectly deep and bright, making it a unique and noble product.
But let’s jump back to our cliché French man. What you can’t see is that the label on most berets came perilously close to reading ‘Made in China’. The French-crafted beret very nearly disappeared altogether somewhat unceremoniously. Were it not for an enterprising local business leader in Gascony, who rescued the notable beret-making company Laulhère the great French beret would be no more.
Laulhère is the last remaining historic beret-maker in France. The company is based in Oloron-Ste-Marie in the Pyrénées. It was created in 1840 by the Laulhère family. The company has had to fight to keep going thanks to an on-going textile industry crisis as well as from low-price, low-quality products from international competitors. These factors sadly led to the decision to finally close its doors in 2013. And, that may well have been the death-knell for the French beret as we know and love it.
However, a rescue effort was mounted by a Gascon based company called Cargo Group and its sister company Blancq-Olibet. Thanks to them classic French berets continue to be Made in France.
Aimery Forzy, Cargo Group’s CEO says: ‘We decided we wanted to save our famous Beret Gascon. It is such an important part of our history and patrimoine. It is hard to picture the ‘Frenchy’ with a baguette and no beret!’
A Gascon through and through, Forzy explains ‘We will try our best to keep the three main production lines: the military, traditional Basque/Gascon beret, and the fashion beret…. and we’re updating it! For example we have worked with Agnes B (a trendy Parisian brand) and other renowned French fashion designers. Some new designs are be a bit more modern, but with an emphasis on the traditional and noble touch. So far so good, but it is very important that we all continue to support the Laulhere/Olibet beret, which is one of the Gascon main ready-to-wear items.’
Rosabelle Forzy, the company’s Managing Director says ‘I thought it would be mad to let this institution disappear, it is such a big part of our French heritage.
‘The beret has an extraordinary history. On top of its obvious intrinsic qualities it is an object that is in constant movement. It has been on the head of many free spirits! It is quite symbolic for artists, revolutionaries, jazzmen, cinema stars, the Yéyés (1960’s fashion), and it continues to be a symbol of freedom of thought and a constant fashion accessory.’
Vive la beret!