Handmade in France: Rubber Boots by Aigle

 

 

Once upon a time, the rubber boots Aigle manufactures were made mainly for French farmers. Today they are coveted by trendsetters around the globe. Aigle's story demonstrates how an everyday product can be imbued with fresh spirit – while saving numerous jobs in its country of origin at the same time.

A few puddles on the cracked concrete surface are all that remain from an earlier downpour. They mirror the freshly washed, deep-blue sky and some small, high-sailing white clouds. A staff member strolling from one production hall to the next gives the water a wide berth, although as an Aigle employee he's certainly an expert at dealing with puddles. Like everyone else in the company. This vast industrial area, a former military base, has over 220 Maîtres Caoutchoutier working on it – a title that more or less translates as Master Rubber Craftsman. Aigle, their employer, is a long-standing business in the small town of Châtellerault in the western part of France. About an hour away from the famed Loire castles, Châtellerault has always been Aigle's traditional base, and the company's production site remains located in there.

Established in 1853 by Hiram Hutchinson, an American émigré, the company is said to have invented the rubber boot. Until then, French farmers had to make do with wooden clogs. Suddenly, affordable footwear to keep their feet clean and dry was available. The boots are reported to have been an instant success and, to the present day, Aigle is reputed to manufacture the most durable boots on the market. We ask Romain Guinier, CEO of the company since 2008, whether this is true, and he nods.

I'm convinced that these are the very best rubber boots in the world. And, this is not just my personal opinion. In internal comparisons, we always rank at the top of the class.

Aigle boots always score top marks for durability, and the seams where the parts bond are not prone to tearing. The color stability of the material is also higher than that of the competition. And then there's the overall flexibility, which is tested in special in-house stress tests. "To check their flexibility, the boots are bent up to 500,000 times to imitate the stress of taking a step. Comparable in a way to the chair stress tests that IKEA uses. None of the competition does anything similar – our efforts are unique in the market," Mr. Guinier, also chairman of the board at Aigle, tells us with visible pride. There are numerous aspects leading to their superior quality, but in essence it's all down to the same reason: Expertise.

Aigle simply knows how it's done – thanks to more than 160 years of experience in the trade.

The staff at Châtellerault knows the sources for the best natural rubber and has worked with the same suppliers in Vietnam and Malaysia for decades. According to Mr. Guinier: "We tried the cheaper alternative from Africa just once, but were not satisfied with the result. And so we decided not to continue." The natural rubber slabs which, depending on the season resemble either an aged Parmesan or a mature Brie, do not stay in the warehouse for long. Large rollers soon flatten them into flexible sheets of rubber that become thinner, wider, and more even with every turn through the presses. Every now and then, a loud bang resonates through the hall as the machines squeeze a large air bubble out of the raw material.

"Rubber is a natural resource that continues to breathe and, when badly cured, can change even after vulcanization. The results then are porous patches, tears, cracks, or color changes. We have our own laboratory to constantly monitor the composition of our material. A few years ago, we improved the formula and now the final product is even more durable than it was before."

Over four pounds of rubber, 80 percent of which is natural rubber, are used for a single Aigle rubber boot. A boot that is made up of 15 separate parts.

The Maitre's Caoutchoutier skilled hands seem to literally fly over the material. They cut, press, and join the still flexible separate parts, which are then placed on aluminum molds. This important production stage is executed mainly by women who, with deft yet gentle strokes, mold the rubber into its final boot shape. Again and again, their nimble fingers smooth the material, moisten it, and check that all the separate parts are perfectly positioned.

The boot blanks are then passed from the assembly workers' agile hands to the strong hands of the men in charge of the vulcanizing process. It takes a great deal of strength to maneuver the heavy rack of boots into the autoclave. After the raw rubber blanks are cured for an hour at 140 °C, the material has set and the separate parts have bonded into an impermeable whole. Whether the boots are really waterproof is tested immediately: Every single boot is pumped up like a balloon and submerged in a water basin. If bubbles appear, the boot is sent to the boot infirmary, where the leaky parts are treated with silicon.

Approximately 800,000 rubber boots made by 220 Maîtres Caoutchoutier leave the production halls in Châtellerault annually. Mr. Guinier, knows how valuable this human capital is. "Many of our employees started working for Aigle when they were 16 or 17. It takes at least two years to learn all the steps involved in making a rubber boot. Now each year, I hand out anniversary medals; in France, these are awarded to employees who have been loyal to a company for 40 years." Some of the staff will be pensioned soon, leaving unfilled gaps behind. This is because at one point Aigle considered – as did others – moving production overseas. "All of our competitors have done so. If we were to manufacture our products in China, we would cut our costs by a third. However, quality would suffer and we would lose our know-how as well as our technological advantage. But that's not the only reason I decided against it."

Previously, Mr. Guinier worked for L'Oréal and Louis Vuitton, so he is well aware of the value of a brand and the PR benefits that can be achieved by upholding traditional values. In 2008, the year he took over as Aigle's CEO, Mr. Guinier realigned corporate strategy with his vision. First, he moved the rubber boot back into the focal point of marketing activities. At the end of the 1980s, in a diversification strategy, this traditional core product had been demoted to a by-product of the textiles department and relegated to the back of the stores. "Just think – this was Aigle’s original product. The company is over 160 years old. It's a fascinating story and a part of our French heritage.

Wherever we sell Aigle products, we also sell a bit of Frenchness.

And so, I took the fact that we continue to produce in our country of origin and turned it into a competitive advantage as well as a key selling point."

In Asia, where the company has been active over 20 years, the concept "Handmade in France" attracts customers. In the Aigle stores located in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district, Hong Kong, or Shanghai, the rubber boots are at the center of the showcase. Around them, Mr. Guinier has created a decor along the lines of a well-appointed French home with marble mantelpieces, Louis-Philippe mirrors, antique wooden shelves, and Art Deco lamps. In the men's department hunting trophies are displayed, while the women’s department resembles a boudoir. "In the Asian stores, we intentionally left a lot of words in French. This adds a special touch and sets us apart."

Called the heritage concept, the store decoration is not the only change the astute 49-year-old has introduced. Like most French, he grew up with the popular rubber boots. "I come from a family with lots of hunters. In our house, Aigle rubber boots in all sizes could always be found at the bottom of the stairs. If you wore the little dark-blue Lolly Pops as a child, you tend to buy them for your own children." It's a brand that has been handed down from generation to generation and contains vast emotional potential. The days in which Aigle manufactured footwear mainly for the farming community are long gone. Today, the company can and must position itself differently, and the chairman knows exactly how to do this.

Everything we do should make it absolutely clear that Aigle is THE rubber boot – and fashionable to boot.

Before Mr. Guinier came on board, Aigle would launch a new model every five to six years. Today in the Guinier-era, at least one new model is released every year. In addition, there are various collaborations with fashion labels and designers as well as new color schemes and patterns. With "Juliette," a stylish ladies' boot with a heel and lacing at the front, Aigle has launched a real trendsetter. "This model is doing really well. Yet we can become even more fashionable. Our established clients know us, so we don't need to specifically target them. We're aiming at a new audience. We want to make them sit up and take notice." Which is why Aigle has launched a new marketing strategy geared to young urban customers, replacing the previous strategy that focused mainly on nature and the outdoors. "Currently, our largest growth is in cities. This clientele wears our rubber boots to go shopping, not for a ramble in the countryside."

With a Gallic shrug, the CEO sums up: "The realignment, the makeover of the stores and the international expansion have secured the survival of the company." But, he continues, they haven't achieved their objective yet. In terms of revitalizing the brand, the halfway mark has been achieved. And, he is aware that with the new focus on fashion, lifestyle, and aesthetics, Aigle will end up losing some of its traditional clients and markets – something that can't be avoided. The major goal is to not compromise on quality. As Mr. Guinier puts it: "It's a balancing act between fashion and functionality. A rubber boot can be both trendy and waterproof. But its main function will always be to keep your feet dry."

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