A beret good show: 70 years of Kangol

TIMELESS, classic, sometimes even cool, the Kangol hat is a traditional British accessory that has become a style staple – drifting in and out of fashion, but often defining the aesthetic of a musical genre or youth movement. Favoured by everyone from Royals to rappers, it is one of the most famous headwear brands in the world, its kangaroo logo instantly recognisable.

2008 marks Kangol's 70th birthday. Entering its eighth decade, the Cumbrian hatmaking firm remains admirably true to its roots, even though its hats have been worn by some of the most famous and fashionable people – from Princess Diana to Brad Pitt and Samuel L Jackson, who is rarely seen without a Kangol Spitfire flat cap (always worn backwards). Its original aesthetic has changed relatively little.

The company was founded by Jewish Polish refugee and First World War veteran Jacques Spreiregen, who handled the import of Basque berets from France to the UK. The beret became more fashionable through the 1920s and 30s, worn by the Duke of Windsor, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. As demand increased, Spreiregen began making his own berets, choosing the Cumbrian town of Cleator Moor (where the company is still based), as the location for his factory. The name is a combination of the letters in 'silk' 'angora' and 'wool' and in 1938 the first Kangol 11" berets began appearing in shops, priced two shillings. During the Second World War, Kangol began supplying berets to the armed forces (including, famously, Field Marshal Montgomery) and in 1948 they outfitted the England Olympic team with berets for the opening ceremony.

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It was during the 1960s youthquake that the Kangol hat entered the fashion arena. Designers including Mary Quant and Pierre Cardin designed ranges for the company that chimed perfectly with Mod fashions. Kangol was officially cool. In 1964, it obtained the sole right to make and distribute Beatles hats, the baker boy-style that bore a Beatles logo. This was the company's first foray into the music world, and would prove to be a lucrative step.

Renowned British milliner Graham Smith joined Kangol as a consultant design director between 1981 and 91. It was during this period (when branded sportswear became cool and the label's famous kangaroo logo was created) that Kangol's fashion profile rocketed and the angora wool "bucket" hat was adopted by hip-hop artists such as Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. In the 1990s, a similar style played a key part in the aesthetic of Britpop, when a lighter, cotton version of the bucket was worn by musicians including Liam Gallagher, Blur and the Happy Mondays.

Ben Fell, Kangol's marketing manager, believes its links with pop have endured, with the result that each generation looks for new ways to wear Kangol. "Hats and headwear do go in and out of fashion," he says, "but still, they always make a strong statement. The classic beret has military and revolutionary/subversive connotations that can be attractive to new music and style movements, and new hat styles evolve and are adopted or adapted by different sub cultures, mainly because they make a strong, immediate visual statement – they're pretty practical, too!"

Today the iconic hats remain popular with celebrities, including Jude Law, Madonna, OutKast, Missy Elliot and Quentin Tarantino. Samuel L Jackson has worked with Kangol to create a cap that can be worn with a tuxedo, while designer Markus Lupfer created a range of Kangol hats for TopShop in 2006. At a less fashion-driven level, everyone from the Boy Scouts to British Airways' cabin crew has worn uniform hats designed by Kangol. The label is currently sold in more than 60 countries.

So how will Kangol be celebrating its birthday? As well as throwing a bash in London tonight, it's publishing a photographic retrospective, and if you fancy a flashback to the 1990s, get your hands on one of a limited-edition of 700 classic black wool caps.

And how do the next 70 years look for Kangol? Inherently British, conservative and traditional, the brand has been embraced by the coolest artists of the past five decades: the Beatles, Run DMC, Madonna, Oasis and even Britney Spears. Perhaps, with luck, this is one home-grown brand that can keep its head in a decidedly chilly climate.

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