Le Chameau from France

With an interest in rubber (rain) boots, it will not take long before you come across the hard-to-pronounce brand of Le Chameau. Established in 1927 in France it still produces rubber boots the traditional way; by hand. Especially their light and dark green boots are easily recognizable, although the chances of spotting one on the streets is much smaller than a pair from their competitors like Aigle, Hunter, or Dunlop. And with a price tag going as high as 400 euros for a pair of leather lined Chasseurs with a zip on the side, and marketing mostly aimed at professionals, that should hardly be a surprise. Below a pair of Le Chameau Chasseur rubber boots on a pile of unprocessed block of raw rubber.

le chameau chasseur rubber boots

The story of Le Chameau starts with Claude Chamot in 1927 on the peninsula of Cherbourg, lower Normandy, France. The agricultural engineer came in contact with shoemaking when he married a shoemaker’s daughter and he saw an opportunity to create sturdy and waterproof footwear for local farmers and fishermen. With soles for shoes already being produced in the back of Madame Chamot’s shoe store, he started experimenting with the most obvious material to produce waterproof footwear: natural rubber. The unique feature he brought to the table was a customized fit for the boots and different models for different occupational groups. His products stood out in flexibility and comfort which built him a reputation and he was able to outgrow his workshop in Normandy in just 12 years. Below blocks of raw unprocessed rubber and the aluminium lasts used for producing their rubber boots.

In 1939 he purchased the former Gervais Nérou wool weaving factory in Caen and moved production there. With demand still growing a second atelier was opened ten years later, in Casablanca, Morocco. Back then Morocco was still a French protectorate making it easy to open shop there and profit from the local cheap labour. Around this time the company also adopted the name “Le Chameau”, which is French for the camel. The new company name was not only a reference to Morocco but also a play on Claude Chamot’s last name. The logo used by the brand would be an oval with a little dent in the top which creates the illusion of 2 humps like a camel has.

The factories closed during the Second World War due to limited supply of natural rubber in Europe and no demand for expensive hand-made rubber boots. The company starts producing rubber boots again after the war, and gains some traction with the introduction of the Saint-Hubert boot model in 1950, but barely any information can be found about this timespan.

Claude Chamot remained the owner of Le Chameau till his death in 1963 and in 1995 the brand is purchased by the French company Lafuma. Besides Le Chameau also the brand Charles Dubourg is bought 3 years later, a manufacturer of hunting clothes, and the first Le Chameau textile products are brought to market. And while Le Chameau has relative steady sales of about 350,000 pairs of boots a year, it is struggling to grow as it has yet to find its way to the general public. The products are often technical and expensive, making it hard to find customers outside farmers and hunters who wear their wellies all day long and can therefore value the higher level of comfort. Its main customer market is France, where it has a market share of around 25%, with the lion’s share held by the French brand of Aigle. Below a picture of Claude Chamot next to a giant model of his boot.

With Lafuma wishing to focus on other parts of their portfolio of brands the La Chameau brand is sold to the British investment firm Marwyn Capital in 2012. This is also the moment the problems for the brand start, even though popularity of the green rubber boots explodes in Britain in June 2012 when Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is spotted wearing a pair at a charity event. Photo by WPA Pool on Getty Images, source Pinterest.

An increase in sales of 32% in the British market can’t stop a larger drop in sales in the much more important French market. Total turnover had been stable around the 24 million euros mark for almost a decade, but under management of Marwyn it drops by a quarter. This results in millions of euros in losses. To save in costs it is decided that the last production facility in France, at Caen, is to be closed. The Casablanca atelier is already responsible for 87% of the production at that moment and with production costs three times as high in France it seems like a logical decision to move all production to Morocco.

As an outsider it is difficult to determine “who is to blame” for the closure of the French atelier. The employees point out that the drop in sales is due to the discontinuation of the textile range and parts of the boot lineup, the closure of their two factory outlets in Orne and Dun-sur-Auron, the indecisiveness of management on a strategy, and stopping the sales to smaller customers who place orders of less than 2,000 euros a time. The situation is even so bad that no senior executive has been seen on location for the past 2 months in Caen.

On the other hand the production facilities in France were aging which would require serious new investments, the production costs of products in France was three times that of the same products in Casablanca, and zero custom fees between Morocco and the USA would mean new opportunities for sales in the American market. Even though the brand would lose its “made in France” appeal, quality would continue to stay excellent as most of the products have been produced in Morocco for decades already. Below brand-new rubber boots ready to be vulcanized in the oven.

So far Marwyn capital did not get rich from their 2012 purchase of the Le Chameau brand. Besides the initial purchase price of 16.5 million euros they invested another 10 million soon after the deal was completed. The brand suffered losses in many years and it is reported the brand is tentatively put up for sale with an asking price of around 25-30 million euros. That is a neglectable return for a 10-year holding period. A quick look at the Marwyn site shows Le Chameau is still in their portfolio. Below a promotional picture of the underwear brand Ossa Stark, where they regularly link their brands country image by the use of Le Chameau rubber boots.

For me the interesting part of the Le Chameau story is how it compares to the Hunter boots brands. Where Hunter boots was bought in a management buy-out and refocused to becoming a fashion brand with “party wellies” sold directly to customers online, Le Chameau stayed true to its origin with a focus on quality rubber boots. The range of hunting clothing was ceased and currently they are selling hand-made rubber boots and, for some strange reason, dog products. They sometimes venture towards the fashion industry by cooperating with other brands, producing some brightly coloured and/or stylish models, but the majority of their rubber boots is “boring” green and will last you for years. And while you can order your boots through their online shop, there are still hunting, fishing, and upcountry shops that have a range of their boots ready to be tried on. Over the almost 100 years the rubber boots have been sold, the clientele still mainly consists out of farmers and upcountry folks who actually use the boots for that they were intended: keeping your feet dry and comfortable in wet and muddy fields.

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