Page last updated at 23:29 GMT, Thursday, 19 May 2011 00:29 UK

Eyeing a future for the French-made beret

By Chris Bockman
Nay, France

Austrian actress Julia Arnall

The traditional headgear of the French farmer, the beret, is now rarely made in France itself. But the two remaining factories are finding ways of keeping their business alive.

The historical roots of one of France's most totemic objects, the beret, lie in the small town of Nay, deep in the Pyrenees Mountain range.

Its wide streets, arcades and large warehouses give away that this was once an important manufacturing centre. After World War II, the town and surrounding region were home to 50 factories and thousands of jobs in the beret-making business.

The tide began to turn against the beret in the 1950s - farm labour started to die out, and hats began to go out of style

Now there are just two beret workers left in Nay. They run the local Beret Museum - dedicated to the history of the famous headgear - in one of the former grand hat-making factories.

There are plenty of old weaving machines that were once used to make hats from the wool of local sheep. Faded photos on the walls underline that berets were once almost compulsory for men, a proud display of regional identity.

Children wore them to school, while for farm workers they provided essential protection against the damp and cold of winter and intense sunshine in the mountains.

The tide began to turn against the beret in the 1950s.

Farm labour started to die out, young people began to flock to the cities... and hats in general began to go out of style.

Bangladesh

But it was globalisation which finished off the French beret for good as a mass-produced export.

French UN peacekeepers in Chad
The military remains a big potential market

Like countless other sectors of the European textile industry, production moved to Asia. Nearly all the world's berets are now made in Bangladesh.

French beret manufacturers - nearly all based in south-west France - were unprepared for the competition and unable to compete on price with their Asian counterparts. Most of their factories closed down for good in the 1980s.

Just two have survived: Beatex and Blancq-Olibet. Between them they have around 100 employees. Their headquarters are less than 30 miles apart - but rather than join forces, these two firms watch each other warily and try to keep hold of what ever market share they can.

Alain Zachar runs Blancq-Olibet. He used to be in the shirt-making business - but saw that industry vanish, as low-cost producers emerged in China. So he has gone into berets.

But he told me that this time he focused on big buyers with financial backing. In other words, the military.

The French army is buying berets in the tens of thousands and if Alain can provide high-quality, well-made hats tough enough for soldiers then he could emerge a winner. And not just in France.

He sees potential for selling military berets across the world - especially for UN peacekeeping operations, where the floppy hat appears far less aggressive than a helmet.

Peasant chic

Down the road in Oloron St Marie, the Beatex company is housed in an old factory that's now far too big for its current volume of production.

Cardin fashion show
Luxury designers have added French-made berets to their collections

In a warehouse, modern machines spin wool into yarn. Next door around a dozen women work behind sewing machines, threading together the trimmings.

A showroom exhibits the latest models and you quickly see that this company has a new customer in mind.

With prices as high as 70 euros (£62 or $100) per beret, Beatex is targeting women looking for a peasant chic look.

Celebrities like Madonna and Claudia Schiffer have been spotted wearing the hat. Luxury designers Christian Dior and Hermes like the idea and have added the high-quality French-made berets to their collections - hoping women not just in Paris but Tokyo and New York will buy them.

Beatex's owner Pierre Lemoine told me that going upmarket is the only way he can compete with cheap imports. The French-made beret only has a future as an expensive fashion accessory, he says.

How ironic that a garment so rooted in a regional, rural, peasant lifestyle could survive thanks to a global market of urban fashionistas.

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