Aigle rainboots from France

The first brand that will pop-up when talking about rubber boots is for most the British Hunter brand. But with a yearly production of 800,000 pairs of boots the France brand of Aigle should be on the top of your mind as well. You will most likely spot one of their boots in either France or Asia as almost 90% of their profits are made there with a mix of sturdy and serious looking hiking boots and cute bright colored rainboots for kids or fashionable rubber boots for daily life. In this article we will take a closer look at the history of this brand. Below one of their 2007 advertisement to peak your interest.

Early years: 1853 – 1914

Until the 1850s farmers and workers in Europe had two types of footwear available; leather boots which were only partially waterproof, and wooden clogs which were not waterproof at all. There was obvious room for improvement and it was an American of British origin that was able to take the lead. Hiram Hutchinson, born in 1808, was an engineer and entrepreneur who had a close understanding of rubber as he owned rubber tree plantations in Bolivia and Guyana. Natural rubber had serious drawbacks back then when used in products: the material would get sticky in hot weather and crack in the cold, making it unsuitable for footwear. Only due to the discovery of vulcanization, where rubber is treated with sulfur and heat, the material becomes stable and the material of choice for waterproof footwear. Charles Goodyear invented this process of vulcanization and held the patent. Below a print of Charles Goodyear experimenting with rubber using a stove as a source of heat.

Both men crossed paths in 1853 in Paris where Hiram Hutchison purchased the patent from Charles Goodyear. Hutchinson’s vision was to bring vulcanized rubber, in all its possible applications, to the European mainland. He established the “Companie du caoutchouc souple”, which translates as the flexible rubber company or the soft rubber company, and purchased for 3 million French francs the former royal paper mill of Langlée in Châlette-sur-Loing. To give some perspective on the size of the investment he made: the French franc was on the gold standard in the 1850s and the purchase price of 3 million francs corresponds to about 28,000 ounces of fine gold, currently worth almost 50 million euros (100 francs was worth 1oz, or 32.25 grams, of 90% pure gold). And that only buys the production facilities, still requiring investments in machinery, training of employees, wages, R&D, setting up sales channels, etc. Below an old picture of the clothing department of Hutchinson in its early years, possibly around the very start of the company.

The products quickly found customers with 90% of the French population living on the country side and no alternative footwear available that even comes close to the comfort and waterproofness of the rubber boots, shoes, and clogs produced. Products were sold with the brand name “à L’Aigle”, or the eagle in English, in honour of the symbol of the American spirit. In 1854, just one year after starting production, 5,000 pairs of rubber boots were produced per day. With demand soaring a second factory is opened in 1857 in Mortargis, about 100 kilometers south of Paris. This production facility is able to produce boots, tents, sheets, and floor mats for sell throughout Europe, Turkey, and even Australia.

A third factory starts production not long after, in 1860, when Hiram Hutchison purchases the small “Rubber and Guttapercha Factory” from Schalk and Berger in the city center of Mannheim, Germany, for a purchasing price of 100 kilograms of gold which is currently worth about 5,5 million euros. The facilities were actually bought in 1859 but it takes some time before licenses are arranged as the rubber factory is located in the centre of the city and was closed previously due to health risks. Mainly rubber footwear is produced in this factory and the total production of all 3 facilities totals around 8,000 pairs per day in 1870. Below an early picture of the production process at the Mannheim facilities (source).

And another picture from the same era showing women at their workstations putting parts of the rubber footwear together (source).

In 1867 Hiram Hutchinson leaves France, and Europe all together, to return to the United States where a career as a diplomat awaits him. His son, Alcander Hutchinson, who has been managing the rubber company from 1854 onwards already, simplifies the company name to A. Hutchinson which will later be changed to Hutchinson.

With the death of Alcander in 1888 the responsibilities of running the company moves to his nephew Elisha Moroton Hutchinson and ten years later the children of Alcander sell their shares to Achille Adam, Georges Lelièvre and Jacques Sée making it a French-owned company. The new owners aim to grow the business further and over time diversify by manufacturing tires for bicycles and cars, balls, floor mats for cars, industrial manufacturing belts, and other rubber products.

The War years 1914 – 1945

With the start of the Great War demand for rubber products from Hutchinson increase with orders coming from the French military to produce tents, gas masks, rubber boots, and tires for trucks and airplanes. These products are produced in their two French factories as the production facility in Mannheim is confiscated by the German government to produce products for them. Below a picture of a Hutchinson-made gas mask (source).

The interwar period brings prosperous times for Hutchinson, with the Aigle brand becoming very popular among women in Paris during the Roaring Twenties. They now produce fashionable rubber urban footwear, chic raincoats, fabric for corsets, scrubs underwear, and stylish rubber boots. This boom in demand lasts till economic problems start setting up the European theatre for the Second World War. An overview of some of their rubber raincoats is shown in the advertisement below.

And another advertisement poster for their raincoats which is so waterproof that the wearer can comfortably refuse the umbrella that is brought to him (source).

The outbreak of World War II cuts Hutchinson off from its factories in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Hutchinson does get commissioned to produce for the French military again but this stops with the capitulation of France on June 22, 1940. The factories of Hutchinson keep producing rubber products during the war, but production levels drop drastically due to a lack of raw materials and unclear lines of responsibility with both the Ministry of Economy and sometimes Herman Goering directly giving orders what needs to be produced. It is estimated that France as a whole in 1941 only receives 12.8% of the amount of rubber it imported before the war. The French factories of Hutchinson make rubber soles for shoes and bicycle tire, while it is unclear what products were made in the Mannheim factory. It is hard to find accurate information about this period as the current Aigle brand glosses over this time period, possibly partially because the Mannheim factory made use of forced labor from Russia according to city administration documents from autumn 1944. Below a closeup of an Aigle rubberized raincoat from 1940 (?) that is for sale on Chezpakane. (source)

Post war: 1945 and after

The seed for the next stage of products produced by Hutchinson is laid in 1936 by the French government when paid leave was introduced. This was a revolution for its time and gave French workers the opportunity to enjoy leisure activities on their (paid) day off. Sports and outdoor shoes were introduced; made from canvas with a rubber sole and available in different models and colors. It quickly became apparent the market for leisure specific footwear was much larger than waterproof rubber boots for farmers and much of the R&D and marketing was aimed at coming up with new footwear products and introducing it to the general public. Below an advertisement for Aigle basket shoes from the 1960s.

The (anticipated) increased demand justified building a state-of-the-art shoe factory on the 30-hectare site of a former US military base in the French city of Ingrandes in 1967. At the site there was storage space for 2 million pairs of boots and shoes and they could put through 75,000 pairs daily with an annual production capacity of 10 million pairs. The first rubber boot produced at the site is the “Bison” model. The advertisement below shows the range of rubber boots on offer in 1961 under the Aigle brand name.

In 1972 a special rubber boot for sailors is introduced by Marc Pajot during the sailing events at the Munich Olympic games. The blue boot with white stripes quickly gains popularity and becomes one of the staple items for Aigle which still sells these boots today in a range of colors. The navy blue version stays a bestseller. Below the rubber sailing boots with the old brand logo above it.

A year later, in 1973, the leather look-a-like Aigle Ecuyer riding boot is introduced which becomes a world-wide best seller. The introduction of this riding boot is a good example of how the company adjusts some of their current models to create a boot for a very specific target audience. Below an advertisement from 1971 for the Aigle Tonia fashion boot which already closely resembles a riding boot (source).

In 1996 the Parcours boot was launched. This combination of a waterproof rubber boot with the comfort of a hiking boot turns out to become a best-selling rubber boots in Europe.

Behind the footwear

While new models of footwear are introduced regularly and the Hutchinson portfolio of best-selling boots keeps increasing, the ownership structure of Hutchinson experiences rapid change during the seventies. After the 1973 merger with Mapa, the oven mitt manufacturer, financial problems arise and the French oil company Total takes a majority stake in the company. With a strategic focus on the industrial products from Hutchinson the doors are opened to sell the consumer parts of the company, including Aigle. In 1994 the American investment firm Apax partners buys the brand which has spent the past years diversifying into outerwear and has established a foothold in Asia. In 2003 the ownership changes hands again to the Swiss family group Maus.

Currently half the profits of Aigle come from Asia, but France stays their largest single market with 40% share in the total profits. The last 10% comes from the rest of Europe. One of the main selling points in the Asian market is the “Origine France Garantie” label, which requires that more than 50% of the unit cost price originates from France as well as that the product takes its essential characteristics in France. All adult footwear is produced at the site in France, where 220 Maîtres Caoutchoutier, or master boot makers, put together the 15 separate parts by hand and perform a quality test on each boot before it leaves the factory. Production totals around 800,000 pairs of boots yearly. Only the children boots are made in China, but Aigle is currently in the process of moving the production of children boots for the European market to France. The outerwear is mostly produced in low-wage countries though, and there are no plans of changing this anytime soon.

Current day

The main focus of the Aigle brand today is rubber boots. Many of the best-sellers of decades ago are still being produced today, including the 1972 sailing boots, the Ecuyer riding boots, and the Parcour hiking boots. The boots go much further than simple utilitarian footwear though, as many models are extremely popular in France as fashionable footwear. This is excellently documented by the BDC69 blog showing post after post of mostly French women wearing black rubber riding boots as fashion in the streets of urban cities.

The relationship with rubber Aigle boots often begins at a young age when kids get their first pair of Lollipop boots, which are also available for adults, and you move on later to more serious footwear that gives more comfort and protection. A couple of models stand out, with most remarkably the in 2010 introduced limited edition colorful waders pictured below. Too bad these are sold out for years already.

New models are regularly introduced to target the fashion market but the classic models will be produced alongside. Pictured below the Aigle Mouline boots in dark blue, credit the now defunct site of Atelier Ethique.

All in all the French brand of Aigle offers a wide range of rubber boots ranging from children’s boots for playing in the mud, to fashionable urban boots and pactical rubber boots suitable for the worst of terrains.

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