Iconic: The Guy Cotten Oilskin Jacket

A small, yellow figure with its arms outstretched is the logo of Guy Cotten, the French specialist of “all-weather clothing.” In 50 years, the brand’s reputation has gone far beyond its native Brittany, making it the world leader in professional oilskins. The yellow waterproof jacket featuring Velcro fasteners and a zipper has also established itself on the U.S. market, where it surfs on the prestige of French-made products.
© Guy Cotten

On February 15, 1964, Guy Cotten and his wife opened a family workshop, going against the advice of his former boss, an overalls manufacturer, who wished them “the very best of luck.” Having realized that oiled cotton jackets traditionally worn by fishermen were not waterproof enough, Guy Cotten decided to replace them with oilskins created using PVC. At the time this material was mainly used to make tarpaulins and awnings. He cut the pieces, his wife sewed them together, and the seams were soldered shut by heating the polyester which melted and covered the stitching. The first waterproof oilskin jacket was born.

But in times of bad weather, accidents can happen. Rising to the challenge, Guy Cotten designed a bright yellow overcoat. This enabled high visibility, as yellow is the color the eye notices fastest. He personally promoted his invention, walking along the ports of Brittany and Normandy to convince fishermen to adopt his new safety wear. As he put it, “any man overboard should be able to find their way back onto the boat.”

Safety Whatever the Weather

The Breton entrepreneur then went a step further by creating overalls with suspenders that inflated automatically. He even jumped into the water to demonstrate the efficiency of his products. “Wearing his overalls, he jumped into the port of Dieppe in front of a dumbstruck panel of officials from the maritime authorities. On another occasion, he spent several hours wearing the overalls in an ice bath at Concarneau hospital to convince industry professionals of the quality of his safety equipment. So the story goes, he stepped out of the bath without so much as a sneeze,” writes journalist Erwan Chartier-Le Floch.

Guy Cotten, the father of the yellow oilskin jacket. © Guy Cotten

Guy Cotten was once on a boat with Yvon Hemery, the founder of the Rosbras sailing school in Finistère (Brittany), when the crachin – a local name for drizzle – began to fall. “Why has no one invented a waterproof jacket you can put on over your head like a shell jacket?” his friend complained. A couple of days later, Guy Cotten returned with a prototype of the Rosbras jacket to test it on the sailing students. In just a few years, the renowned yellow oilskin became the “uniform” of seafaring professionals, including fishermen, sailors, and yachtsmen.

In 1974, graphic designer Alain Le Quernec designed the little yellow figure that went on to become the brand’s logo. The rise in popularity of sailing then made the yellow oilskin a trendy piece of clothing, quite by accident. After all, the Breton company was never concerned with being fashionable, and it has never worked with stylists. “Our design offices are the quays of the port,” the founder used to say. Be that as it may, the yellow oilskin was reinterpreted in the 1970s by Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Courrèges, and in the 1980s by Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

From Practical to Trendy

The popularity of French-made products abroad has worked to the brand’s advantage. The raw materials used to make the jackets are French, the pieces are cut in Brittany (many in Trégunc at the company’s historical workshops), and certain final assembly stages usually involving soldering are carried out by a factory in Madagascar. And the yellow oilskin has also found a following in the United States. Guy Cotten passed away in 2013, but the brand has been run for the last ten years by his daughter Nadine Bertholom-Cotten, who opened two sales outlets in America. In both France and the U.S.A., the Rosbras jacket’s clientele is the same, save a few differences. The fabric is thicker for fishermen in Alaska and more flexible for amateur sailors in Brittany, for example.

French oilskins are renowned for being robust! But should a stitch or a zipper come apart, the company offers a repair service. This is particularly appreciated as it is uncommon outside of the luxury sector. Falling victim to its own success, the yellow oilskin is constantly imitated by ready-to-wear brands. Armor Lux and Petit Bateau even made it one of their best-sellers alongside the striped sweater and the fisherman beanie hat. This love of the Brittany style has led to some amusing scenes, as some Parisians now look more Breton than the Bretons themselves! Inevitably, the iconic brand is now receiving offers from big names in the world of haute-couture.

Article published in the November 2018 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.