Chapal, America Under the Skin

Fur coats for her, rabbit felt hats for him, and sheepskin jackets for bomber pilots! The French company, which is celebrating its 190th anniversary this year, was the leading seller of animal pelts in the United States for many years. The brand has since turned to luxury leather aimed at an international clientele with a passion for aviation and vintage automobiles.
The B3 sheepskin jacket was initially designed to protect American bomber crews during World War II. © Chapal

Jean-François Bardinon, the CEO of Chapal, welcomes us to a luxurious apartment on the Rue de Rivoli, in the heart of Paris. The home once owned by his grandparents is formed of a series of salons decorated with tall mirrors and thick rugs, and is now used as a showroom for the company founded eight generations ago. Leather and wool are showcased wherever you look. In a corner hangs a heavy leather aviator’s jacket, a replica of the ones produced by the brand for the French army during World War I. Across the room, a thick turtleneck sweater in fluorescent yellow wool, a modern take on the outfits worn by car racers in the 1930s, is folded on a table.

“Everything you see has been handmade in our workshop in the Creuse département,” says the CEO, who took over from his father in the 1980s. “For the last two weeks, American customers have been visiting the showroom. They are in Paris for Fashion Week, and appreciate the quality of French artisanry.” Emile Chapal would be proud. His bronze bust adorns a mantlepiece below a chronological frieze detailing the company’s history since 1832. He was the one who developed the family brand in the United States.

Jean-François Bardinon, framed by his ancestors: Emile Chapal (left), his great-great-grandfather, and Jean Bardinon, his grandfather. © Chapal
This AE 1932 jacket in suede leather was inspired by American aviator Amelia Earhart and her first solo flight across the Atlantic. © Jonathan Daniel Pryce

In the early 1880s, he set off for New York City on the invitation of a family friend, a furrier who supplied pelts to the workshops of Manhattan. During this “initiatory journey,” the young man realized that there were opportunities for his family on the American market. At the time, Chapal was renowned in France for having popularized fur. By using silk-dyeing techniques, the company’s workers were able to color rabbit skins and offer cheap but convincing imitations of the most sought-after animals, including sea otters, silver foxes, beavers, martens, sables, and mink.

America, a Land of Plenty

A born entrepreneur, Emile Chapal convinced his father and his uncle to let him move to Brooklyn with his wife and a dozen French employees. He spent seven years there before returning home to take over the company. A four-floor factory opened at 401 Flushing Avenue to process the pelts collected in France by traveling skin buyers and sent to the United States by boat. A millinery was then opened in the 1920s in Norwalk, Connecticut, to turn rabbit fur into felt.

Emile Chapal took his last trip to New York City in 1928. In a case at the Parisian showroom, a black-and-white photo shows him with his successor on the deck of a transatlantic liner. The company was then at its peak. It employed more than 3,000 workers across a dozen factories in France and the United States, and posted annual revenues of 260 million francs – the equivalent of 16.2 billion dollars today! “An unimaginable sum” that the current CEO cannot help but compare to the results of his competitors: 5.6 billion euros for Louis Vuitton in 2020, and 6.4 billion for Hermès…

In the 1880s, Chapal opened a factory at 401 Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. © Chapal

During the 1930s, Chapal’s tanners in the United States came up with a final genius idea. Rabbit fur had gone out of fashion and been replaced by sheepskin, and the company patented plasticization. This chemical process is used to waterproof suede by coating it with a liquid resin. The new form of protected leather was used to make warm clothing for the crews of the Flying Fortress bombers during World War II, including flight suits, jackets (including the now-famous B3 model), and fur-lined boots.

Luxury Crafts and Bespoke Customer Service

Made with glossy leather in brown, blue, or charcoal gray, and topped with its iconic Colorado sheepskin collar and two front pockets, the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) flight jacket has become Chapal’s bestseller. Sold for 4,200 euros, it symbolizes a certain renaissance. In 1987, Jean-François Bardinon designed an initial retro collection inspired by aviation and automobiles, a passion inherited from his father. After struggling financially for some time, the company reinvented itself and began making clothes under its own name for the first time in its history. The brand stopped supplying and launched itself into the production of luxury clothing.

A craftsman at work on a flight jacket made using Massif Central sheepskin. © Chapal
In brown or blue glossy leather, the USAAF jacket (for United States Army Air Forces) is Chapal’s best-seller. © Chapal
Rapper Dayron Ferguson, who collaborates with Chapal, in a 1950s-inspired denim and leather driving suit. © Greg

Some 30 artisans currently work in Crocq, the family’s native town between Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand. The team includes a tanner, saddlers and seamstresses, a bootmaker, a tailor for bespoke orders, and even a car body designer, who works with fiberglass and makes bowl helmets inspired by car racing in the 1950s. Chapal closed its last factories in America in the late 1960s, but its CEO is trying to recreate ties with the United States. Some of these renewed connections are symbolic, such as the Brooklyn jeans collection in tribute to the first factory in New York City. Others are more tangible: Many Americans follow the brand’s Instagram account and make up almost a quarter of Chapal’s clientele.

The company no longer puts out pelts by the millions. Instead, it appeals to a select number of enthusiasts who adore fine crafts and French-made products – something that Jean-François Bardinon refers to as “true luxury,” as opposed to the “mass-market luxury” pursued by his competitors. “I love what you do, it’s superb,” says a customer as he enters the showroom. Dressed in an elegant suit, he works in finance in Paris and New York, owns two planes, and has just purchased a 1920s pilot’s outfit complete with a brown leather helmet, matching gloves, and goggles. “It’s mostly for the photos! My friends are also customers here; we have a lot of fun.”

Article published in the December 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.