Berets Made in France Are Almost Fini

PHOTO: A cycling supporter wearing a beret watches the breakaway leaders during the 17th stage of the 94th Tour de France cycling race in this July 26, 2007, file photo. Frank Fife/AFP/Getty Images
A cycling supporter wearing a beret watches the breakaway leaders during the 17th stage of the 94th Tour de France cycling race in this July 26, 2007, file photo.

The French beret, once as common in France as baseball caps in America, is in trouble.

French production of the iconic wool hats — as synonymous with France as escargot — is in serious decline. France in the 1980s produced several million berets a year, but last year it produced just 160,000.

Recent decades have seen the number of French beret-making factories shrink from 30 to two: Laulhere and Blancq-Olibet. Now Laulhere's acquisition of Blancq-Olibet has cut that number to one.

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The problem is in part price. Berets imported from the Czech Republic, from India and from China sell for as little as two Euros. Men's berets made by Laulhere sell for at least 40 euros.

Mark Saunders, head of sales for Laulhere, argues that price isn't everything.

"There are berets and there are berets," he told Bloomberg News. When wet, he says, Laulhere berets remain sweet-smelling. Imported berets give off an objectionable aroma. If you don't want to smell like a wet wool sock, he says, you will wear only the traditional French.

This simply isn't true, Geoffrey Colvin tells ABC News. "I have a Spanish-made beret sitting on the desk in front of me right now, one I bought for 26 euros from Elosegui of Spain, and I can tell you it does not smell when wet." Colvin, senior editor of Fortune magazine and a sartorial authority, says smell is not the modern beret's problem, whatever its country of origin.

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The problem, he says, is that young people aren't wearing them. "In northwestern Spain, berets are worn universally by farmers and old-timers in general, but not by younger men. That seems to me to be the bigger issue," he said.

Men's hats of all sorts have practically become extinct, he says, except for baseball caps.

The once-ubiquitous beret, worn by everyone from Faye Dunaway to Che Guevara to Picasso to Sam Kinison is worn today by….whom?

Colvin says Laulhere would be wise to slip Justin Bieber an honorarium to start sporting one. The company also might be wise, he says, to concentrate on women, who have not soured on hats the same way as men. Laulhere already has a line of women's berets in a variety of colors.

The company could offer customization. Spain's Elosegui already does that. According to its website, its berets can be customized by the addition of precious stones, sequins or embroidery.

The French government is coming to the beret's defense. President Francois Hollande has launched a campaign called "Made in France" to help Laulhere and other slumping companies that make products intrinsic to the French image.

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Hollande's minister of industry, Arnaud Montebourg, posed on the cover Le Parisien Magazine wearing a sailor's jersey, a Herbelin watch, and holding a French-made blender. He also has toured a "Made In France" product fair wearing a Laulhere beret.