The greening of the beret
An Irishman’s Diary about the Dubliner trying to save a classic French hat
“Every silver lining has a cloud. Half a century of peace in Europe, followed by the end of the Cold War, was very bad news for beret makers. When France abandoned conscription in 2001, it was a near-fatal blow. In fact, even Laulhère had to be rescued two years ago, when Cargo Promodis, now its parent company, injected funds.”
The town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie is about 30 miles west of Lourdes, where many’s the Irish pilgrim has sought supernatural assistance. But it’s not in hopes of a miracle, exactly, that Dubliner Mark Saunders has settled in that corner of the Pyrénees. His mission, which does not require the involvement of Lourdes – at least yet – is to save the French beret.
Never mind sluggish growth figures and unsustainable deficits. The most dramatic indicator of a Gallic malaise may be the news that France is now down to its last indigenous beret manufacturer, a 174-year-old company called Laulhère. Saunders is the venerable firm’s head of sales. As such, he may now be responsible for keeping a classic French product alive.
It was love that led the Tallaght man to this destiny. When he met his future wife, Edwige Olibet, back in the 1980s, they were both working in England. At the start of the subsequent boom, they tried Ireland for a while. But as Mark puts it, “she lasted two years”. Then Edwige’s homeland beckoned for both: “It was either that, or divorce”.
Now it so happened that Edwige’s family owned another beret-making company, Blancq-Olibet, which was also based in the Béarn province and rivalled Laulhère in antiquity. In fact, there were still at least 20 beret factories in the area at that time.
But by 2014 it was down to just the two old rivals. And the entanglements of fate decreed that when Laulhère bought out the other – no longer in the Olibet family by then – last February, Saunders was now leading the French beret’s last stand against cheap imports from Asia.
First made by Béarnaise shepherds, the hat has led a sort of double life down the decades. On the one hand, it’s a French cliché, the textile equivalent of the baguette. And yet its versatility also gave it international appeal, especially among the military.
The beret was both made and unmade by war. Among the hat’s advantages, for example, is that it’s not easy to knock off while entering or exiting a tank – hence its use by British tank regiments (and by one of its most identifiable wearers of the 20th century, Field Marshall Montgomery).
Then there was the US army. As the first modern president to eschew headwear, John F Kennedy is often portrayed as the milliners’ nemesis – his Cuban missile crisis being accompanied by a Panama hat crunch. Against which, he authorised the wearing of berets by US special forces, thereafter known as the “Green Berets”.
But every silver lining has a cloud. Half a century of peace in Europe, followed by the end of the Cold War, was very bad news for beret makers. When France abandoned conscription in 2001, it was a near-fatal blow. In fact, even Laulhère had to be rescued two years ago, when Cargo Promodis, now its parent company, injected funds.
Since then, sales have rebounded, and employment has increased by half, to 39. That might be evidence enough of “green shoots”, even without the Irish angle. But the fact is that the aforementioned Dubliner is central to the recovery. His priorities were first to save the French-made product, then make it profitable. So far so good. The business is now breaking even. Profits should follow in 2015.
It’s not unusual, historically, for Irish people to be entangled in the fate of France. I’m reminded of one of the more famous beret wearers of all time – the man in the background of Robert Doisneau’s immortal 1950 photograph of a Parisian couple kissing.
He was long assumed to be an archetypical but unidentified Frenchman. Then, some years ago in this newspaper, former Irish Times staff member Helen Gygax suggested he was her uncle, Jack Costello, from Fontenoy Street in Dublin, making his only trip abroad.
The Doisneau family counter-claimed that the man was a Canadian lawyer. Since when, the Costellos have pointed to the bawneen jumper, just visible under the beret-wearer’s overcoat. The debate continues. But I mention it here because of Fontenoy Street, which shares its name with at least three Irish GAA clubs, and is so-called for the epochal Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. Crucial to the French victory that day was a fierce attack by the Irish Wild Geese battalions, charging the British lines with cries of “Remember Limerick”. In the process, according to Napoleon, they helped preserve the ancien régime by 30 years. It remains to be seen whether the French-made beret can hold out that long, but it’s an encouraging precedent.