Until Kate Middleton showed up at one of her husband’s soccer matches wearing a premium pair of Le Chameau rubber boots, the under-the-radar brand went largely unnoticed by the fashion crowd. Within hours, fashion editors and bloggers, hanging on the Duchess’s every wardrobe move, were abuzz over the French heritage company, hitherto known mostly by farmers, hunters and fishermen. Like Diana before her – who caused a similar stir in a pair of Hunter boots in the early days of her engagement to Prince Charles – Kate’s choice provoked a sartorial uproar, immediately boosting sales of the “sophisticated” Le Chameau brand and prompting The Telegraph to wonder whether a “war of the wellies” was imminent.
But war is the furthest thing from the mind of the peaceable Le Chameau (The Camel). Nestled in the impossibly green Normandy countryside, in a region so hilly it’s called La Suisse Normande, the company factory looks more like a dignified provincial manor than a fortress. This is very much befitting an enterprise whose main beneficiaries are people who make their living, or spend their leisure time, in the countryside.
Since Le Chameau’s founding in 1927, its mission has been to supply local workers and gentry alike with the highest quality, most functional rubber boot on the planet. Whether a chest-high wader for oyster fishermen, a sleek leather-lined equestrian model or a gusseted non-slip boot for sailors and yachtsmen, each design is rigorously engineered for its purpose. It’s really no one’s fault, then, if the boots catch on with British royalty, and no doubt the heritage brand is as bemused as anyone over that fact. Bemused and delighted, certainly, but not in the least surprised.
‘The Camel’ was born in 1927 when Claude Chamot, an agricultural engineer married to a shoemaker’s daughter, was living in Cherbourg, a rainy, windy sea-lashed peninsula in lower Normandy which juts far out into the English Channel. No doubt these factors were crucial in Chamot’s decision to put his head to the problem being voiced all around him, namely what to do about the flimsy, leaky lace-up boots that plagued his countrymen. For in a climate like that of Cherbourg, no-one was spared the elements.
Naturally, Chamot looked to rubber. Lightweight and flexible, the hard-wearing substance was the only logical material to use considering the soggy conundrum set before him. Though Chamot was not pioneering the manufacture of the rubber boot itself, his focus on construction, flexibility and comfort, and his attention to the subtle differences required of each model, according to the needs and characteristics of the trade it served – whether it be fishing, oyster farming, sailing, agriculture or hunting – was ground-breaking.
After a few years, the fact that more and more men were seeking out Chamot’s boots attested to the fact that whatever he was doing, he was doing it right.
In 1939, when Chamot’s small Cherbourg workshop couldn’t meet the growing demand, he moved production inland, to Pont d’Ouilly near Caen, where the atelier remains today. Ten years later, Chamot opened a second branch in Casablanca, Morocco, still a French protectorate. The two ateliers prospered, and in homage to his surname and those beasts of legendary resilience, he changed the company name to Le Chameau. A year later, he created the ‘Saint-Hubert’ boot.
Past Meets Future
These nearly simultaneous events mark a watershed moment in the company’s history and could be described as the junction where Le Chameau’s past met the face of its future. A model very much at the heart of the company’s image, and still one of the company’s bestsellers, the iconic Saint-Hubert incorporated all of Claude Chamot’s ingenuity and technical skill with the kind of streamlined elegance that, to this day, defines a Le Chameau boot.
For one thing, the Saint-Hubert was the first boot to combine rubber and leather in a unique fusing process. It was also the first rubber boot to incorporate a zipper and a gusset for a better fit – not an easy thing to achieve while ensuring that it remains impregnable to moisture. This model is considered mainly a hunting boot, although who could argue with using it as an all-purpose outdoor boot – the leather interior allows it to breathe and mold comfortably to the wearer’s calf and foot. Along with two or three others, it is also the only semi-bespoke rubber boot in the world.
Fashioned from 240 different sizes of aluminium lasts, instead of by mould like many other brands of rubber boots, certain Le Chameau models (the Saint-Hubert, ‘Alezan’ and ‘Chasseur’) can be custom made according to 10 precise measurements, including the length and circumference of the calf and the precise width of the foot.
Although the Saint-Hubert is made only in Normandy, both the company’s Pont d’Ouilly and Casablanca workshops are still producing their boots via the same methods perfected by Chamot – the fact that Le Chameau refers to its facilities as ateliers (workshops) and not usines (factories) is no accident.
“A Le Chameau boot is a history of men who, after a long and rigorous apprenticeship, intervene in each step of the creation,” says Marc Longuet, the company’s head of research and development. “Made exclusively by hand, by one single master bootmaker, each boot is a unique creation, made with precise gestures and assembly techniques handed down from generation to generation.”
Longuet himself exemplifies the generational link that characterises the company, as his Father worked directly with Claude Chamot in the Normandy atelier.
Each of the processes – there are about 150, from start to finish – and the 14 elements which go into the making of a single boot are undertaken by a specifically trained individual. The process includes mixing dyes and chemicals with raw rubber to create the desired strength and suppleness; pressing out and cutting the rubber; moulding and constructing the sole; sewing the (leather, fabric, neoprene or fur) lining; assembling the boot (undertaken by a master bootmaker) and, finally, the technique of vulcanisation that transforms the rubber into a durable end product.
An orthopaedist by training, Longuet, who is both director of operations and designer – responsible for creating the models which appear in two collections per year – stresses the importance of each boot’s sole. Engineered to differ slightly from model to model, according to usage, it is the element which is most essential to the boot’s comfort, flexibility and longevity. Therefore, it is created with the utmost care.
Although there are slight variations in style, materials and colours for each season, the evolution of the boots’ engineering, as Longuet puts it, “answers only to the needs of our clients and still today we have not stopped innovating. For example, we have just created a partnership with Michelin [the French tyre company] responding to the needs of farmers”.
The result of this partnership, called ‘Cérès’ after the goddess of agriculture, has a sole with thick, chevron- shaped treads which allow mud to be easily jettisoned.
Vive la Différence
Although the other major manufacturers of rubber boots – Aigle in France and Hunter in the UK – can both trace their origins back to the mid-1800s, the dawn of the industrial use of rubber, their marketing philosophies and products differ significantly from Le Chameau.
Both Aigle and Hunter were founded by Americans who obtained their patents directly from Charles Goodyear, the inventor of the crucial vulcanisation process which, by the addition of sulphur to the raw rubber and the application of heat, transforms this natural resource into material possessing the long elastic fibres that make it both durable and waterproof. Prior to vulcanisation, rubber was far too brittle and unstable for industrial use.
Hunter, the UK’s most visible boot brand, launched a high-fashion clothing line for spring 2014 during London fashion week in February, and now manufactures its wares in China. On the other hand, Aigle’s product is still manufactured by hand at their traditional factory in Châtellerault, and employ an efficient assembly line technique required for the huge output (800,000 pairs per year) to stock their 500 boutiques around the globe.
Both companies have taken a different direction than Le Chameau, trading on their status as a heritage brand to create utmost visibility and develop their share in the fashion market.
“This is something Le Chameau will not be doing,” says Charlotte Mazeau, Le Chameau’s communications and PR manager. “We are a company that has built strong relationships with our customers over time, by responding to their needs. It is that evolution, our unparalleled craftsmanship, lasting power and unique savoir-faire that sets us apart. For us it’s essayer-adopter – once you’ve tried our brand you can never go back.”
Le Chameau is very much a luxury brand, in the best sense, and as such carries a higher price. However, for timeless craftsmanship, comfort and durability, it is still a small price to pay. Savvy outdoors people from all over make the pilgrimage to Le Chameau’s Avenue de Ternes boutique in Paris – the only dedicated shop in the city. If you are having trouble getting your hands on a pair of Le Chameau boots, take heart that Net-a-Porter has recently begun stocking several models – including the jaunty ‘Paris’ and ‘Kate’s Vierzon Nord’ – which is a sure sign that the sophisticated brand has arrived.
But don’t expect to see a Le Chameau boutique sprouting up in an upscale shopping mall near you. The company remains resolutely dedicated to authenticity and craftsmanship. If fashion happens to adopt them, well, that’s just fine. But being à la mode will never be the company’s raison d’être. ‘For what shall it profit a brand if it shall gain the whole world and lose its own sole?’
From France Today magazine