One of France’s last remaining beret-makers, Laulhère, which supplies the traditional headgear to the French army, has opened a boutique on Paris’s rue Faubourg Saint Honoré, a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace and home to luxury haute-couture labels including Hermès and YSL.
The disc-shaped woollen hat was originally a male head covering, worn by shepherds and artisans either side of the Pyrénées. But it was adopted first by artists and then armies in the 18th and 19th centuries before becoming a female fashion accessory.
The symbol of a bygone, rural France was painted by a 14-year-old Picasso in 1895 , before it transformed into a signifier of chic modernity, worn by Madonna, Brigitte Bardot and Samuel L Jackson, though it had fallen out of fashion in recent years.
The word béret is thought to have first appeared in France in 1835, but the headcovering itself dates from the middle ages. Historians cannot be sure where the hats originated – possibly Spain, the Middle East or Scotland, where in 16th-century Glasgow there were five bonnet-makers turning out tam o’shanters.
In modern Paris, the hats are undergoing a remarkable change in clientele. Laulhère sells berets for between €87 (HK$704) for a basic model to more than €1,000 (HK$8,000) for the most extravagant variants, made with the finest wool or leather and decorated with sequins and stones.
Laulhère, which began making berets 170 years ago, feared for the headgear’s future as recently as five years ago. But it now sells about 200,000 berets a year and turns over nearly €3m. Rosabelle Forzy of Laulhère said the most expensive designs were aimed at “tourists looking for elegance and luxury à la française”.
Mark Saunders, Laulhère’s Irish-born commercial director, said the company was not the only beret-maker in France, but was the last “historic” manufacturer.
“Thirty years ago there were 22 beret factories in the [Pyrénées-Atlantiques] region, now Laulhère is the last,” Saunders told Agence France-Presse earlier this year.
“The image of the Frenchman with his baguette and a beret on his head is old fashioned in France. Abroad, the beret is the emblem of France.”
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