More than anything, we want to safeguard and pass on the craftsmanship
Crossing the reed-peppered wetlands behind the wheel of his Honda Civic, Antoine Agulhon points out a heron taking flight here, a grazing bull there, a white horse basking in the sun a little further on. Even though he grew up far north from here, near Orange in the Vaucluse, he knows the landscape of the Camargue - and its inhabitants - well.
He moved to the Gard a few years ago, to take over La Botte Gardiane, a heritage boot-maker founded in 1958 and bought by his father in 1995. This is the story of two brothers and a sister, Antoine, Julien and Fanny, who had never even thought of working together but who ended up - for want of a better pun - jumping in with both feet. And not just into any project, the company makes work boots for the gardians, countryside figures emblematic of the Camargue, who run the bull ranches known as manades.
With a style that is just as carefully put-together as their American cowboy counterparts, they are usually seen in black velvet jackets lined with red, moleskin pants, floral shirts, hats and straight-legged, round-toed mid-calf boots with notches at the top to make them easier to pull on, a small heel that fits into a stirrup, lined with smooth leather so they can be kicked off easily should a bull decide to drag its trainer through a marsh (word to the wise).
Other fans of the label may not have cattle to herd, but they love the look of these work boots, like the Japanese clients who discovered the brand at a Paris trade show in 2002 and gave it a second wind. Or Phoebe Philo, who ordered several pieces for Céline in 2004, during her tenure as creative director for the fashion house. But all of this might never have happened.
When their father bought the company for the modest sum of FF25,000, it had just declared bankruptcy. He had to renovate the factory, recruit craftsmen, modernize the collections and develop the business internationally. Finance degree in hand, Antoine soon joined his father in the venture, followed by Julien, an electrical engineer, and a few years later, Fanny, who was finishing a degree in shoe design at the London College of Fashion. Each one has their speciality, but the trio share a passion for the craftsmanship that now comes out of their brand-new factory in Aigues-Vives.
On the roof, clearly visible from the road that runs through the vineyards, the new logo stands 5m tall; a gardian sitting proud on his horse, armed with the emblematic trident used to guide the bulls. In this region of the biou, or Camarguaise bulls, 24 gardians still come to the Agulhons to buy their boots or have them repaired by one of the 17 artisans on the 700m² factory floor, who cut the patterns, brand logos into the leather, glue in soles, nail boots and ‘pamper’ the finished article as they say, before boxing them up and slipping in a reproduction of an old black and white postcard of a branding in Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer.
In total, 40 pairs come out of the factory daily and at 4:25pm sharp, the bell sounds the end of the day and the artisans leave their posts. And we can understand why, it would be a shame to miss the incredible sunsets over the wetlands.
Three questions to Fanny, Antoine and Julien Agulhon
Even if our skills are quite complementary – I know the world of machines and Antoine has the business – we chose a system of alternating governance. We each spend a week in the workshop and a week running the business, so that our perspective stays fresh. As Fanny lives in Paris, she designs new models, looks after our communications and manages the two Paris stores.
We aim to choose local providers for our raw materials, use leather that is produced as a by-product of the food industry and plant-based tanning. We fitted the new factory with LED lighting and heat pumps and finally, we have tried to make the working environment as comfortable as possible, for example, by minimising solvent fumes. It has to be a company that looks good both inside and out.
We want to develop our business online and continue to grow our collections with flats, heels, cowboy boots, espadrilles, belts, bags and obviously the gardian boots of which we are still the only manufacturers today. We have over 200 references available in 100 different leathers. But more than anything, we want to safeguard and pass on the craftsmanship.
Their three favourite places in the Camargue
“We share the same values as the owner, Carole, a permaculture expert, and her husband Benjamin, who DJs in Churascaïa, one of the best clubs in the area. They are both people who like to do good. Recently opened in Lunel, their bistronomy-style restaurant has already been noticed by the Michelin Guide. We love their sourdough bread made with ancient flours.”
129 Cours Gabriel Péri, 34400 Lunel
Tél. : 04 67 15 14 55
“A historical monument in the Regional Park of the Camargue, this 600-hectare estate conjures up emblematic and unforgettable images of the region, with reeds and marshes as far as the eye can see. Take a tour on the little train, watch the sun rise over the pond at Vaccarès, take in the organic rice fields and see the biou native to the Camargue. During the summer you can go to the Féria du Cheval festival.”
Mas de Méjanes, 13200 Arles
Tél.: 04 90 97 10 51
“This chateau in Villevieille was in ruins a few years ago, but it has been brought back to life with a great deal of care and is now a four-star hotel and restaurant. There are beautifully high ceilings, stone everywhere, a huge pool and La Canopée restaurant is excellent.”
2 Allée du Pigeonnier, 30250 Villevieille