Meet the last remaining traditional French beret maker who still crafts the timeless headpiece by hand
Maison Laulhere is on a mission to preserve the unique know-how involved in creating stylish berets ‒ the national symbol of France.
Long before Emily of Emily in Paris was traipsing through the city of lights in her distinctive red beret, French army soldiers as well as iconic stars including Brigitte Bardot and Lauren Bacall were already donning the headgear in their own inimitable style.
For many celebrities and stylish tastemakers, the first and last word in chic, high quality berets is Laulhere. This is because the 185-year-old maison continues to produce this timeless headpiece in France using traditional methods that have been passed down from generation to generation.
It was founded in 1838 in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, a small town located at the foothills of the French Pyrennes and the banks of River Gave by Lucien Laulhere, the son of a wool merchant named Pierre Laulhere. He began manufacturing berets in 1840 when he married Marie Tournaben, the daughter of a beret-maker and the brand began to gain popularity over time for its stylish yet functional headgear.
Berets were first worn by farmers and labourers and later on, the military for practical reasons as wool is relatively water resistant, traps heat in winter while keeping one cool in summer. But with an appearance that conveys a certain amount of easy insouciance, the beret began to find its way onto the heads of some of the most famous people in the world, including celebrities like Madonna, Rihanna and Emma Watson.
Today, the brand continues the tradition started by Pierre Laulhere in using Merino wool for its unparalleled quality.
“Pierre Laulhere was an industrialist with a passion for knitting and especially wool knitting. Laulhere in Bernese means shepherd, which is a small reminder of our DNA. In fact, for five generations, it was the family and its descendants who ran its factory until the 1970s,” said owner Rosabelle Forzy, who took over management of the company in 2012.
She worked in the tech industry for 10 years before taking over Laulhere, which was then experiencing financial difficulties. She said: “What motivated me to take over this house was the iconic character of this product. For us a good beret is also a beret which is made in harmony with nature and by people who are happy with their work. Then, it is a product that will be beautiful.”
Maison Laulhere is the last remaining beret maker in France that continues to hand-craft the hats using machines that were purpose built on-site. “Knitting a beret is quite simple, the real difficulty is going to be the know-how that goes into making the beret extremely durable and that involves 20 people who are each going to do different things to make it iconic, ultra durable and timeless,” Forzy explained.
She emphasises the importance of investing in training the different artisans to perfect every “gesture” required in the making of a beret. “We make it a point not to simplify it because if you simplify it, the product loses its beauty. ”However, one element of the beret-making process has been updated with the times. While knitting the wool used to be done by hand, new technologies are employed today to knit the distinctive round shape of the beret. This is the only mechanised process in the factory ‒ everything else is done by hand, like the way it used to be.
“Laulhere has transformed the beret industry by innovating and keeping the product innovative for years. Our own knitting machines were specially made by Laulhere for Laulhere.”
These knitting machines run 24 hours a day, seven days a week and produce an average of 250,000 berets annually. Even with the machines, each completed beret is still carefully checked and shaved to smoothen the edges and remove any impurities. The allure of the beret can be in part attributed to its versatility. New styles combine the traditional silhouette of the hat with bold, customisable details that range from handmade pearls and mirror-effect embellishments to mysterious veils. No wonder this stunning headpiece is making a comeback on the fashion runways in modern times.
Boutique manager Natasha Akl said: “There is no one specific style for the beret. You can really top off any style with a beret. To wear the beret correctly, you start with the forehead and pull it backwards. Then, you could adjust the cabillou ‒ the emblematic tip of the beret ‒ by positioning it a little to the side in the French style. But ultimately it is really up to each person to choose what suits them best.”
In keeping with tradition at Lauhlere, nearly all the factory employees are locals from the town. In addition, the maison also offers an apprenticeship programme to keep the legacy of beret making alive.
Founded in 1838 in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, a small town located at the foothills of the French Pyrennes and the banks of River Gave, this maison produces an average of 250,000 berets ‒ the national symbol of France ‒ annually.
Said Forzy: “The most important challenge of having a beret factory is to continue to innovate while at the same time sticking to who we truly are. That is why today the beret is back, front and centre stage for every season. And we hope that it will continue to do so in the future.”
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living (Season 4). Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 8.30pm.