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Emblematic beret back in fashion

Nick Rowswell discovers that manufacturers Blancq-Olibet have more than doubled production in two years thanks to Ché and bobos

BERET manufacturers Blancq-Olibet based at Nay in the Basque country have more than doubled production over the past two years.

Churning out more than 300,000 berets a year, their orders come from around the world from as far afield as Japan. In 2006 the company received an extra boost when the Cuban government ordered 100,000 berets to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the revolution.

The beret revival comes just a few years after the industry was on the verge of disappearing. Chairman of fellow beret manufacturers Béatex, based in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, Bernard Fargues attributed its rise in popularity to several factors.

As well as the emblematic portrait of a beret-wearing Ché Guevara, which turned the hat traditionally associated with French paysans into an essential fashion accessory with the nation's youth, he also feels it has grown in popularity with young, affluent city types hankering after a traditional France.

Named bobos, or the bourgeois-bohème, Mr Fargues said they are buying berets as a sign of authenticity and a link to rural France, where their grandparents probably lived and worked.

MILLINER Stéphane Jacquet (pictured) in Bourges in the Cher department explains why the country’s youth is bringing the hat back into fashion, reveals the current trends and gives an insight into the profession’s future.

Are hats back?
They've never been away. I think though that hats now appeal to a younger public. Most of my trade used to be with the over-40s, however nowadays a lot of my customers are in their early 20s.

Many have bought a cheap hat in a chain store, caught the hat bug and then come to me for something a little more authentic and longer lasting.

France is also a very hat-orientated society. Most professions have their own distinctive hats, such as the gendarme with his képi.

Even the post office has brought back the emblematic beret for their postmen.

What are the current trends?
Well certainly brims (les bords) are getting smaller. Ten years ago brims were far broader, as much as eight or nine centimetres.

The current trend is for a six-centimetre brim, a bit like the trilbies of 30 years ago. The good old cloth cap has also made a welcome return; it is an essential fashion item for many of my younger clients, though the current trend is not for the traditional cap that you might associate with old men or country gentlemen.

The casquette branchée (latest fashion) is the gavroche-style (street urchin) the kind of cap that was popular with young Parisian men-about-town in the 1920s and 30s.

What about the humble beret?
Another bestseller, but here too, the clientele has changed. There has been a role reversal. The old men who you might have expected to see sporting a beret, are all wearing hats.

The beret has become an essential bobo fashion accessory and most beret-wearers nowadays seem to be the bourgeois-bohème type. I think they are looking for an authentic and tangible symbol of deepest France, or, la douce France, the cliché from the song by 1960s singer Charles Trenet.

The beret is perhaps synonymous with France's rural past where life was supposedly easier and simpler than today. Of course, the beret is also very popular with the English. I always sell quite a few to British tourists passing through Bourges in the summer.

Can you give us a few beret-buying tips?
The first thing to look out for is the size. Not simply the hat size but the diameter of the beret itself. Both are indicated on the leather band around the outside.

A normal beret may have a diameter of 25 centimetres, however some berets, can go over thirty. The more beret you have on top, the bigger the slant, the more you have to pull to one side, or another.

There is a popular myth, which says the side to which you choose to slant your beret, left or right, is a sign of your political affiliations.

The last two French beret makers are in the Basque country, where the locals also wear the traditional red beret, nothing to do with politics or paratroopers though. The largest berets are possibly those of the French Alpine troops, les Chasseurs Alpins. To give you some idea of the size, they refer to their beret as a crêpe.

We hear so much about production of traditional French products being made abroad, such as boules for pétanque made in China or foie gras from Hungary.
Are berets still being made in France?
About 40 years ago, there were 30 beret manufacturers in France, now there are just two - Blancq-Olibet near Nay and Béatex, at Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Both are in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Blancq-Olibet have been making berets for about 200 years.

You have been a chapelier in Bourges for nearly 20 years. In these hard times, do you think that there is a future in the profession?
Hats are not prone to recession but to the weather. With the recent cold spell, I have been doing a very brisk trade. I also think that when it comes to hats, people are ready to pay for a long lasting and quality product. A stetson or a broswell are not as expensive as you might think. For around €80, you can purchase a quality item that will last you for years.

I have customers who are still wearing hats that they bought 10 years ago, and of course if you need it cleaning or reshaping, you can always bring it back to the shop. Hats are here to stay.

IN France a maker and seller of hats or chapeaux (chapeau in the singular form) is known as a chapelier.

Never say of a hatmaker, il travaille du chapeau, this would mean that he is as mad as a hatter.

A trilby or a fedora in French is called a chapeau mou (soft hat) or feutre, meaning felt hat, referring to its felt-like appearance. Most hats are made of rabbit skin, though the Americans make them out of beaver or castor.

The French have never been mad on the bowler hat, or chapeau melon, though in the 60s, at a loss to find a home-grown name for The Avengers, they called it Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (bowler hat and leather boots).

In France various trades and organisations have their own symbolic hats. The most well-known is perhaps the traditional gendarme's hat, the képi.

If you refer to le chapeau de Gendarme, you are in fact describing a paper hat that children make to play at pirates.

In the armed forces, everyone wears a beret, but for official occasions, ladies will wear a coiffe and the men a casquette.

The French equivalent of the saying ‘to wear several hats’ is porter plusieurs casquettes.

To carry the can is porter le chapeau.

If someone is talking through his hat, il parle à travers son chapeau.

To be in charge / oversee is chapeauter. In job terms it can also mean that you benefit from just a spot of nepotism.

The saying hats off to you for a job well done is chapeau bas!

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