Chargeurs: From Haute Couture to Protective Face Masks

Last March, Chargeurs was still producing technical fabrics for Chanel, Balmain, and Yves Saint Laurent. The French group, also established in the United States, is now making some 15 million protective masks every week – an unprecedented initiative in the group’s long history.
© Courtesy of Lainière Santé/Chargeurs

Founded in 1872, Chargeurs has adapted its factories in Picardy and Alsace to meet the demand for medical equipment provoked by the pandemic. This evolution led to the creation of Lainière Santé, whose filter masks are now available in the United States under the brand Lainiere Health. We discussed the current situation with the group’s CEO, Michaël Fribourg.

France-Amérique: The pandemic and the suspension of international flights have been an unprecedented challenge for Chargeurs, a group present in 90 countries [which also owns France-Amérique]. What has been your experience of the last few months?

Michaël Fribourg: We are accustomed to major crises, whether related to military conflict, politics, or public health. La Compagnie des Chargeurs Réunis was in fact created in a post-war context, as it was founded to accompany France’s international reconquest strategy following the country’s defeat in 1870. Since then, the group has taken part in every national war effort. In 1914-1918, our cargo ships transported French troops and supplied them with meat from Argentina. During World War II, our ships and planes supported Free France, particularly in Africa. More recently, we have decided to produce individual protective equipment to assist with the healthcare demands of the current situation.

How did you shift from producing technical fabrics for the fashion industry to making protective masks?

It is all thanks to our industrial know-how. We adapted our facilities to modify the fabrics we usually make, and in record time. The operation should have taken three months; we did it in three days. We reorganized our employees’ responsibilities — quite the managerial challenge — and modified the working methods of our industrial and innovation teams. Today, all our factories are producing this technology, and the mask production rolled out by the Chargeurs group is providing direct and indirect jobs for more than 10,000 people across the world.

© Elena Olivo

What makes these masks innovative, and how are they different from those produced by your competitors?

Lainiere Health masks are breathable and have filters. Unlike the face masks currently found in the United States, Lainiere Health masks filter particles in a specific way. They capture invisible droplets received or emitted by the wearer, and are also ultrafine and antimicrobial.

The standards governing the production of masks are different in France and the United States. How did you manage these variations?

We have worked closely with the health authorities, including the FDA in the United States, to comply with functional specifications. The fact that our masks are already accredited in Europe by AFNOR [the French national organization for standardization], the ANSM [the French agency for the safety of medication and health products] and the French Academy of Medicine will naturally offer an advantage on the American market.

In France, Lainière Santé masks are sold online as well as in pharmacies and tobacco shops. How will distribution be rolled out in the United States?

We will have a similar system supported by agreements with eading pharmacies and local professionals. Our online sales platforms will also enable direct distribution to consumers.

You are a new player on the public face mask production market. Do you think — as Emmanuel Macron does — that the French textile industry is capable of ensuring France’s self-sufficiency in terms of protective masks by the end of the year?

We share the belief that France is capable of becoming strategically self-sufficient, but as a global group our vision is to export our technologies to countries, such as the United States, that are receptive to French quality. Meanwhile, we are developing our production capacity in the U.S. to ensure we have both French and American products. These are our two main global pillars — remaining rooted in Europe and in the United States.

As the CEO of a global group, what are your predictions for the post-Covid world?

The global economic situation will be extremely difficult in the coming years as the leading developed countries will likely endure social, geopolitical, and governmental crises. This context will force us to rethink a certain number of global capitalism’s founding values and redirect our priorities more towards the long-term. Europe and the United States, and particularly France and the United States, should join forces to stabilize the public health crisis and meet the major challenges on the horizon. After all, we have been cultural, economic, and technological allies for a long time.

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Article published in the July 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.