If you live outside of France there is a good chance you have never come across any of the rainwear items of Guy Cotten. That is too bad, because even though this brand is not that old yet, it does produce some of the most interesting rainwear around at the moment. I purchased my Guy Cotten raingear not too long ago and it is currently, without a doubt, my go-to gear whenever I see a cloudy sky. Here I would like the share some historical information about the brand, the most interesting pieces of raingear they currently have, and some tips on how you can add these rainwear items to your wardrobe and turn them into a fashionable outfit when the weather is not very cooperative.
The story of the Guy Cotten rainwear brand starts on February 15, 1964, when Guy Cotten and his wife start a workshop producing rainwear in a garage in the France commune of Concarneau. Only a couple of years previously Guy started out as a travelling salesman for an overalls producer when he stumbles upon a demand for durable and protective raingear in the French fishing industry. Up till that time most rainwear used was made out of cotton canvas impregnated with linseed oil: a combination of materials that resulted in a sticky, uncomfortable, and heavy rainsuit. The techniques of producing this rainwear were first introduced around halfway the 19th century and while the quality had improved over time, they left a lot to be desired. Especially the delicacy of the rainwear was problematic where one tiny accident with a sharp fishing hook could result in the material tearing open requiring extensive repairs or the purchase of new raingear. Below a picture of a fisherman in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, wearing cotton-canvas impregnated with linseed oil raingear. The lack of buttons on the front of the raingear is to prevent fishing nets from getting caught. Source.
At the end of the Second World War new materials were introduced in war-torn Europe: most noticeably polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which was extremely suitable for rainwear. But while the Norwegian rainwear brand Helly Hansen started introducing PVC rainwear in 1949 already, the French market still depended on cotton canvas with linseed oil. It was Guy Cotten who saw the opportunities by producing high-quality workwear for the local fisherman. But when he discussed his idea with his employer he was turned down and wished upon good luck to start his own venture. And this is what he did, together with his wife who was a trained seamstress, under the brand name “Guy Cotten”. Below the current-day production facilities of Guy Cotten in France, where still most of the rainwear is produced.
The production process started out simple: Guy would be cutting the patterns of the rainwear from large rolls of PVC material they had ordered and his wife would be stitching the pieces together. As stitching would leave holes in the material they would try to minimize the number of stitches at sensitive areas like the shoulders and use a method of high-frequency welding the PVC so it slightly melted and formed a completely waterproof bond. These production techniques have not changed over the years, below a picture showing the modern Guy Cotten production facilities where an employee is using a “high-frequency welding machine” to make a waterproof connection between pieces of PVC.
The small production line could produce about 30 rainwear items per day in 1964, and on Saturday Guy would venture out to the harbour to sale his products. The combination of his sales experience from his previous job and the superiority of his rainwear made this a relatively easy sale. The PVC raingear was not only much more comfortable to wear, the much lower weight of the material meant stress points in the raingear could be double layered, and even triple layered on the knees, to make it much more durable and tear resistant. Unlike linseed-based raingear, the PVC products could last you a lifetime, even in the harsh environment of the fishing industry. Soon his reputation preceded him from word of mouth, and he had to start extending his production facilities to meet demand. At the end of 1965 he already employed around 10 people to produce his products. The bright yellow PVC oilskins made by Guy Cotten would soon become the standard uniform for fisherman at every French port. Below some video stills of the production facility in 1968, showing the production facilities in their workshop with rows of employers behind the sewing machines stitching together rainwear. Source.
It was only 2 years into his venture that Guy Cotten ran into his next huge opportunity. When spending a relaxing afternoon with Yvon Hemery, a friend who also happened to be the owner of the Rosbras Brigneau sailing school, the discussion came to sailing clothing and how the currently available range was not very practical with button closings which let through water and the need to put them on over your head. Guy Cotten set to work immediately after returning to his workshop and a week later he visited Mr. Hemery again with a prototype of a jacket which had a zipper and a folding design with Velcro in the front to keep water out from the zipper. The practical design was an immediate hit and the jacket became known as the Rosbras jacket. Below a picture from the Farmerrain website, which also sells some Guy Cotten raingear and ships its internationally, showing the zipper and velcro combination of modern Rosbras raincoats.
The timing could not have been better: sailing was increasing in popularity in France. Even today the Rosbras jacket is still the most recognizable product of the Guy Cotten range with 15,000 jackets being produced per year in the past decade and total sales of over 600,000 jackets since 1966. With their original production facility quickly becoming too small the company moved to a larger production facility to be able to keep up with demand.
In 1974 the graphic designer Alain Le Qaernec designed the logo for the Guy Cotten brand: a little yellow figure covered in a yellow oilskin with a pair of yellow rainboots sticking out. The logo normally goes with the tagline “L’abri du marin”, which translates as “the sailor’s shelter”.
Interestingly enough the bright yellow oilskin rainwear slowly turned into a fashion item in France, even though no designers, stylists, or marketers were involved to bring the raingear to the general public. Other brands started copying the design, something Guy Cotten had to put a halt to with several lawsuits, and famous fashion brands, like Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Courrèges in the seventies and Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier in the eighties, came with their own interpretation of the yellow oilskin type raincoat clearly inspired by the Guy Cotten Rosbras sailing jacket.
According to Nadine Bertholom – current President of the Guy Cotten brand and daughter of Guy Cotten himself – the success of the company is due to a focus on quality and reacting to feedback from their customers (fishermen) who bought their products. Instead of a department with stylists, it was the after-sales department that initiated changes and improved the clothing over time. Below a video still from French TV with the Guy Cotten rainwear range in the seventies, this was functional heavy-duty raingear that crossed-over to fashion. Source.
Notice the beautiful shine of the rainwear pictured above which is currently best matched by the Cap Coz fabric. Below a coloured picture of this type of raincoat in shiny bright yellow.
That is not to say no efforts were made to increase sales by offering a wider range that would be more attractive to the general public. But in most cases these efforts were limited to adding a new colour to the range of available rainwear, not by introducing decorative items like buttons, belts, or stylish collars. Below a long Guy Cotten raincoat in red that closely resembles the style of long Rukka raincoats that became hugely popular in Scandinavian countries, but it still has a mostly practical and very basic design.
And the basic Rosbras raincoat, but now in red, followed by a black version modelled in combination with over-the-knee boots.
During the past decades more products have been added to the Guy Cotten range, from professional flotation suits and workwear rubber boots, to more leisure products like waterproof bags and stylish raincoats. And while this split between professional and non-professional product is in line with what many other workwear brands are doing, the obvious problem is that they lack distribution channels to really pull it off. For their professional range of raingear they have a distribution network of retailers in several countries around the world which works fine for the commercial fishing sector. But fashionable rainwear has a completely different target audience, and unless someone knows the brand already it is unlikely they will be looking at the stock of raincoats in a fishing store in the harbour for their new raincoat. To reach a more general audience he brand will need to be visible and available at main street department stores and shopping centres, but this is barely the case so far. They did do a attempt reaching a broader audience by collaborating with Paco Rabanne, a Spanish fashion designer, but much further than the Rosbras jacket with the brand name “Paco Rabanne” added to the back, and a price tag that was several hundreds of euro’s higher than the regular Rosbras jacket, they didn’t come.
Another attempt in 2016 took place when the Guy Cotten brand launched a crowd funding campaign for a new collection of products on the kisskissbankbank website. They basically offered people to sign up and order products online, and when they reached their sales goals of EUR 15.000 they would commit to the collection and start producing it. The line was based on the professional clothing they were already producing, but was now aimed at the general public by making the raingear lighter and more flexible which improves the general comfort. A crowdfunding project is in itself not very strange, but is normally better suited for upcoming manufacturers who need money to start their production on a scale large enough to make it worth their effort. To have a 50+ year old company start a crowdfunding project seems like a clear sign they have little connection with the target audience they are aiming for or a useful network of points of sale. And herein lays their biggest problem: how to enter the lucrative market of fashionable rainwear without much brand recognition outside of France and a distribution network aimed at the professional fishing sector?
The biggest hurdle I ran into when purchasing my Guy Cotten raingear set, of which I wrote a review here, is that there are barely sellers of their products in The Netherlands. The gear I had in mind was only available in the UK and even there I had to look through multiple sites to find a place that had both the jacket and pants I was looking for. Alternatively I could have purchased my gear on a French website, but they barely offer multi-language websites or international shipping. In the end I did manage to purchase my raingear from the UK, but although I have already decided I want to buy some more gear from them I am postponing it for a while already due to possible import duties when ordering from the UK and more expensive international shipping due to Covid-19. It would be so much easier to just have the ability to order their complete range of raingear online, from a website they run, which would also offer international shipping. But that would be the end of their network of distributors of course, who would not be able to compete against that.
RECENT RANGE OF GEAR
Below some of the current range of Guy Cotten rainwear I want to highlight and discuss further. Their complete range of rainwear is too large to go through completely, so I will mostly focus on the few items that speak to me the most. In general that will be either fashionable items, or products that embody the company the best in my view. This immediately leaves out the “agricultural” range of products, in green, as the Guy Cotten brand revolves, for me, around their yellow rainwear, as well as the pure functional rainwear even though it might have a perfect situational look in the right setting.
Obviously the Rosbras jacket is by far the most iconic piece of Guy Cotten rainwear there is. It combines professional grade fishing gear with the style and comfort of regular rainwear designed by stylists, although no stylists were involved in the design. The jacket has a pretty basic design with zipper and velcro to keep the rain out, and a “magic hood” that turns with your head for when you don’t look straight ahead. The overall fit is large, meaning you are best advised to either try the coat on before purchasing or go with a size smaller than you would normally do. Alternatively you can keep the coat unzipped, as the bulkiness mostly shows with the zipper closed, as shown below.
The Rosbras jacket is available in different qualities determined by the weight per square meter of the materials used and finishing of the material. The lightest quality is made of Rednyl, with a weight of 320 gr/m², followed by Nylpeche and Cap Coz coming in at about 480gr/m². The Nylpeche has a relatively matt finish while Cap Coz is much shinier due to its “waxy” finish. With no doubt in my mind I would recommend going for the Cap Coz fabric as it is simply magic in real-life: the high weight gives the coat character and the feel and look of the coating make you want to run your fingers over it every time you walk past it. The obvious choice would be yellow, but the coat is also available in green and since recently in black.
As with most brands of rainwear I would strongly recommend purchasing a pair of rainpants with your raincoat in the same material for a perfect match colour-wise. I made the mistake of ordering my rainpants in the Nylpeche material while the main yellow parts of my raincoat were made out of Cap Coz material, and it bothered me it didn’t match perfectly. In wet weather the difference is minimal, but I would have felt much more complete knowing it perfectly matched.
Instead of ordering a plain and simple pair of regular rainpants, you should first take a look at the Armor trousers which are bib pants. Unlike most other brands these bib pants have elastics build in at the back, making them much more fashionable that regular bib pants which will turn the sitting part of your body in quite a shapeless area. The addition of the elastic band makes them much closer to regular pants, but now with the added value of more cover in the front, velcro closing at the bottom of the pants, and a zipper in the front. The pictures below come from the Farmerrain website which also sells the Armor trousers. In the first picture you can see the elastic band at the back of the pants, followed by a close-up of the velcro closing at the bottom of the pants, and finally the front view. More pictures are available on the Farmerrain site, so make sure to check them out there.
This is from the more stylish fashion range: a feminine looking half long coat available in different colours made out of Glentex fabric. Unlike most of the workwear the cut is much more stylish with the arms attached higher and skinnier sleeves. Add to that the belt to highlight the feminine figure and you get a nice combination of high quality workwear material turned into fashion. Both the yellow and black version look very interesting with my preference going to the yellow as this is the most recognizable colour for the Guy Cotten brand. The coat is also available in red.
Creating a fashionable look with some PVC rainwear from Guy Cotten is relatively easy: just add the Rosbras raincoat to any outfit and you are done. Unlike the heavy-duty PVC based raingear of other brands that are less stylish or fashionable, there is no need to pay a lot of attention to your complete outfit to make this work. How simple it works is shown below, where the Rosbras raincoat is combined with a dress.
Picture below is from the now defunct website of Portfranc.co which sold the Rosbras raincoats in Canada, their Instagram account is still visible here.
General advice would be to contrast the overall bulkiness of the raincoat with an outfit that is a bit better or tighter fitting as shown in the picture below (except for the bulky scarve).
Another great way to contrast a bright yellow PVC raincoat is by looking for different materials and more discrete colours for your accessories. During the colder periods of the year you can add a grey or black woollen hat, scarve, or gloves, contrasting the shiny smooth PVC. Picture below again from Portfranc.co
Adding even more yellow, for example in the form of yellow rainboots as shown below, will quickly take away attention from your coat and is therefore better to be avoided.
A bit of yellow draws attention, add more yellow and it becomes overpowering. This seems to contrast my earlier advice to buy rain pants in the same colour, but once you need to wear a complete rainsuit your main focus should be to stay dry and not making a fashion statement in the middle of a downpour anymore. Source of the picture below.
A pair of bib pants can be fashionable by themselves: don’t try to hide them away under a coat or cover them up: combine them with a yellow rain hat and keep your raincoat out of the picture to show off your unexpected choice of rainpants and leave room for creating some contrast with your shirt or sweater. The yellow PVC rain hat is really one of my favourite accessories as it is just so cute. Picture below is from the now defunct website miabordeaux.fr who models a pair of perfectly fitting Armor trousers with a yellow sou’wester, not from the Guy Cotten brand, in combination with black latex.
A great advantage of going for the heavy-duty Guy Cotten raingear, especially the Rosbras raincoat, is that the design of the gear has barely changed over the past decades making it more timeless, and the quality is excellent meaning it can last you a lifetime. And that is not hyperbolic: buy your raincoat now and you can still wear it 10, 20, or even 50 years from now.