Paraboot: "A 100% French legend"
Find out – or find out more – about the Paraboot brand: an amazing human endeavour charting encounters between outstanding men and women, against the backdrop of the industrial history of France; the saga of a family whose destiny has been closely tied to that of the business for over four generations now. Enjoy your journey to the heart of an unspoilt world where tradition, audacity and innovation come together...
The audacity and entrepreneurial spirit of Rémy Richard
It all began in the late nineteenth century in Izeaux, a small village at the foot of the Alps. Rémy-Alexis Richard, born in 1878 into a humble farming family, became a semi-skilled cutter at Chevron, one of a score of shoe factories in this Isère village. These factories received orders from contractors "in the city", bought the leather, cut it and had the pieces assembled by farming families at home in the surrounding hills, before fixing them (by nailing or sewing them) onto wooden or leather soles, depending on the product in question.
Rémy Richard soon realised that these contractors from the cities earned more money than his own boss, and decided to try his luck; he went up to Paris with the designs for his own models to sell them as a "factory agent".
His plan worked! Rémy had "his" first shoes manufactured by the factories in Izeaux – including the one he had just left – and sold them to the "major" clients in Paris. In 1908, he began to hire his own staff.
"Chaussures Extra" takes its first steps
○ Through another agent he had taken under his wing, Rémy met Juliette Pontvert, the daughter of a wealthy notary in the Sarthe region. He married her in 1910, and founded Richard-Pontvert. He provided his knowhow, designs and equipment; she contributed her dowry money as capital. Rémy launched the "Chaussures Extra" brand – and a collection of fine high-end shoes.
Having been invalided away from the front during the war, Rémy was put in charge of repairing shoes, harnesses and other army equipment.
At the end of the war he returned to his business, which was quite successful. He rented and then bought premises and a warehouse close to Les Halles market in Paris, bringing him closer to his clients: department stores and small boutiques used by the butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers at Les Halles.
In 1920, he purchased his first factory in Izeaux, to gain better control of the manufacture of sophisticated shoes with leather soles, as well as work boots with nailed wooden or leather soles. He registered the Galibier trademark for these boots in 1922.
Rubber becomes the DNA of the Paraboot brand
From Paris to London via Amsterdam, Rémy Richard loved travelling and tradeshows, where he collected plenty of medals.
In 1926, although he didn’t speak a word of English, he set sail for the United States. With an eye for innovation, he noticed the rubber boots worn by the Americans, and above all the assets of this brand new material, also known as latex or gum. This was an epiphany for him. He returned with this material and knowhow to Tullins Fures, a small town close to Izeaux, where he had just bought a new factory building.
Rémy began manufacturing boots that were guaranteed to be waterproof, with "layers" of latex added by hand on wooden lasts and vulcanised in vats.
Rémy Richard was not the first to do this, however. In 1853 the Englishman Hiram Hutchinson had already set up a rubber boot factory in France, the forerunner of the Aigle group. Hutchinson acquired the patents from Charles Junior Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanisation, as well as patents from his father, Charles Goodyear – who, a few years earlier, had developed a sewing machine that was to bear his name.
Rémy did however have eleven years’ start on Vitale Bramani, the founder of the "Vibram" brand: it was Rémy Richard who invented notched soles for mountain boots. Such were the interweaving paths of destiny.
Rémy then had the idea of using this rubber to replace wooden soles. These were inexpensive but uncomfortable and tended to wear out too quickly
Rémy just needed to find the right technique: at that time, the leather uppers of shoes were either nailed to wooden soles or sewn onto leather soles. Neither technique was possible with rubber soles.
Rémy Richard therefore developed a system using fine rubber soles which could be sewn to the upper and then glued with liquid latex to a thicker rubber sole.
The only remaining problem was vulcanisation; an old walnut oil press (another local speciality) made it possible to bake, and thus vulcanise, these shoes in steel moulds, using the humble principle of the waffle iron.
From then on, all the work boots had rubber soles. These became the distinguishing mark of footwear produced at the Richard Pontvert factory.
The Paraboot brand registered
Rémy Richard registered the Paraboot name in 1927, from "Para" – a port in Amazonia, where the latex was exported from, and "boot" – the interesting new shoe he had discovered in the United States.
As you can see, it was a far more meaningful decision than simply creating a brand with a trendy English-language-sounding name. And so the Paraboot technique and style were born !
Meanwhile, Rémy continued to make more sophisticated shoes with a thin leather sole for the softest of carpets, under the Extra brand. It was to be an unusual – and lasting – contrast.
Rémy was one of a kind – a self-taught man, full of common sense, whose only education was in the great school of life. He always had his eye on the outside world, and in spite of his humble beginnings, did not hesitate to rent the Lido to present his collections, have his photo taken at Harcourt – and get suited up if needs be. For his last, somewhat crazy invention (which in the end got nowhere), he went so far as to invite the President of France to attend a demonstration of his "floating man" crossing the Seine – wearing a rubber suit.
An daring wager – stitching at all costs
Rémy Richard’s son Julien joined the company in 1937, at the age of 20. It was not easy to take over from such a devoted, successful father. Julien had spent his childhood away from his parents in a number of different boarding schools, leaving with just an ordinary school leaver’s certificate.
The phoney war, followed by the Occupation, obviously slowed down production due to a lack of raw materials. It meant a return to wooden soles and living by one’s wits. The workers alternated work at the factory and tending the fields, rented for the purpose, with the produce redistributed.
After liberation, a thirst for recovering everything that had been done without during the war got the factories working again, but times had changed. The war led to the development of the chemicals industry. Synthetic materials appeared, as did glues, which were to revolutionise shoe construction methods.
New shoe factories opened, adopting plastic soles from the outset. These were simply glued to lighter uppers – a simpler construction technique requiring less qualified workers. These cheaper, "disposable" shoes were better suited to a clientele that wanted to consume after having been deprived for so long.
The old manufacturing centres disappeared; they were incapable of making the change. At that time Richard-Pontvert had about fifty workers.
Julien, by then alone at the helm, was faced with a dilemma; should he change his manufacturing methods (and the company ethos) and adopt "gluing" as all the others were doing, or persevere, targeting his clients more closely.
Julien Richard was not technically minded but more of a nature lover, hunter and angler, who cared little for the city and tradeshows. He refocused production on impressive thick leather soles. Still using Goodyear or Norwegian construction, these were aimed at people working in a standing position; farmers, horse dealers, lumberjacks, shepherds, factory and postal workers, and craftsmen who needed to be able to rely on sturdy but comfortable shoes.
As well as technical work shoes he created a few "light-duty" models for architects, surveyors and veterinary surgeons. And so the "Morzine" model came into being. In 1945 it was the turn of the legendary "Michael".
A people person who was skilled in public relations, Julien led the family business by trusting his instincts and making good connections. He dropped the city clientele that his competitors were concentrating on in favour of more country-oriented products
Mountain passion – the Galibier brand changed – and climbed !
Julien Richard had to find new outlets wherever there was a need for specific, technical shoes. One fresh avenue was thus in leisure sports activities, which were booming.
The Galibier brand, by then ousted by Paraboot for work shoes, became the leading light in the first ski boots, snow boots and mountain boots.
Julien discovered a whole new world featuring strong, sincere personalities. He supplied the greatest mountaineers: Herzog, Mazeaud, Terray, Desmaison, Pollet-Villard, Royal Robbins, and others.
Julien directed production towards mountaineering, climbing and rock climbing, moving out of skiing which had become fashionable and more downmarket. In just a few years, the Galibier brand became the leader in technical shoes in France and abroad. Richard-Pontvert began exports to Japan, the USA, Italy – in fact, everywhere where there were climbers. Galibier, rather than Paraboot, began to drive factory output.
A new direction – extreme shoes
Skiing was quickly abandoned but other sports were approached, leading to new human endeavours: in 1970, Gil Delamare and Colette Duval, the fiancés of the skies, were at the origin of special models for the France parachuting team, holders of the world title. Then there was Paul-Emile Victor and his special Terre Adélie boots 1971, Haroun Tazieff for his study of volcanoes... and Jean-Louis Turcat, a Concorde and Airbus pilot, the inspiration for a model that is still worn by Mirage pilots. The worlds of motorbikes, horse riding, skiing and hiking were also provided for. Richard-Pontvert manufactured all sorts of technical shoes and even opened the Alviera ice skate factory in 1972.
At that time the company had 650 employees.
The dark years
In 1973, aware that he had been focused on products and contact rather than on management, taking little interest in profits or financial ratios, Julien called on his son Michel – a graduate with experience in the world of multinationals – to streamline the company that had fallen into the trap of the postwar years: rapid expansion, racing inflation and easy credit.
Times had changed again with the first oil crisis. Austerity was the order of the day – with labour and banking relations forced to adhere to strict standards, the unions and bankers were no longer as accommodating as before.
In late 1979, completely sickened by the attitude of the banks, Julien handed over to his son, giving him a free rein. He left his office that same day, never to return.
For six years, Michel had been trying to restrict the business to the "profitable" markets, cut staffing costs whilst improving productivity, roll out the use of computers, streamline manufacturing programmes, and cut costs without increasing prices. He dreamed of being able to right the shaky balance sheet, which relied totally on bank funding.
However, at the dawn of the 1980s, the small shoe factory (which made 45% of its turnover from exports), was bowled over by the collapse of the dollar and the yen and the loss of its largest customers. The ones that remained had problems paying their outstanding invoices.
After two years of major difficulties, Michel Richard filed for bankruptcy in late 1983 – but the unions and trade tribunal believed recovery was possible. The ruling was for business to continue.
Le plébiscite de « la » Michael sauve Paraboot de la disparition
Whilst negotiating with the Trade Tribunal, Michel Richard went to Italy in search of more efficient equipment. He sought to understand the methods of his most formidable Italian competitors. In the end, he met "WP lavori in corso", an Italian distributor of fashion garments, and negotiated a contract.
The Italian stylists had decreed that men needed to get themselves a new look: gone were the dark suit, shirt and tie and black thin-soled moccasins. Instead they were to wear tweed jackets, corduroy trousers and polo-neck jumpers. All that was missing was a thick-soled shoe made from decent materials. Although they had all they needed in Italy, they chose the Michael model by Paraboot.
The popular demand for “the” Michael saved Paraboot from going under.
The fashion quickly caught on, orders flooded in and the workload management schedule was assured. The historic suppliers who had been spared when bankruptcy loomed remained loyal! Paraboot had been working with the same tanneries for several generations – suppliers who were friends first and foremost, who shared the same passion for the job and enjoyed mutual trust. That made all the difference.
The French clients were still there and were right to have waited: two years later, the Italian fashion arrived in France, providing them with unexpected additional business.
The only thing left to be done was to reorganise everything: the staff trusted the young boss and accepted his new rules. Management control became sharper, with computers rolled out to all departments. Productivity improved - as did pay.
The bankers were relegated to counting income and expenditure.
A new, more urban orientation
Michel Richard staked his all by refusing to market only the landmark models that were easy to sell. He required clients to place broader orders that reflected new changes to the range. Having previously doubled, at first sales plummeted by 40%, but ultimately the strategy paid off. The collections now included more dress shoes, manufactured according to the age-old rules of shoemakers, using the most noble materials. The positioning was high-end but not luxury. Paraboot also diversified, creating a Women’s collection in its own right – not simply a female version of the Men’s collection.
With the help of an investment bank, which increased its stake in the capital, Paraboot drew up the beginnings of its own distribution circuit! The first own-name stores opened in Paris, Lyon and Nice in 1987.
The financial troubles were forgotten, but they had made the company very distrustful of credit.
The family saga lives on
With the arrival of Marc-Antoine in Production and Clémentine in Collections, by 2000, Paraboot was in its fourth generation. The family history had remained faithful to the vision of its founder, Rémy Richard, with a determination to ensure the on-going existence of the company and the Paraboot brand.
Since 2004, the Richard family has regained control of the entire share capital.
The centenary celebrations marked one hundred years’ worth of outstanding industrial and commercial endeavours, highlighting the commitment of a family whose history forms part and parcel of the brand. Four generations have headed up Paraboot through a history characterised by repeated reinvention, whilst always staying on course. From the outset, the watchwords have been innovation, artisanal knowhow and workmanship.
The on-going development of the Paraboot network
○ Paraboot, still located in Izeaux, Isère, has become one of the last emblems of “Made in France” and “sewn shoes” in the world of footwear.
Paraboot now operates all around the world, where it has opened its own stores: Antwerp (Belgium) in 1994, Tokyo (Japan) in 2001, Brussels (Belgium) in 2003, Beijing and Sanya (China) in 2012, and has become a globally recognised brand.
Paraboot’s particular hallmark is its combination of traditional yet contemporary knowhow with the aspirations of the men and women of today who love beautiful products.
And that’s not the end of the story, far from it!
1945 – 2015 : 70 ans que Michael traverse les époques, les révoltes et les modes.
Sans oublier ses origines, le modèle évolue avec la société. Il se joue des âges et porte fièrement les valeurs de la marque sur les cinq continents.
Entre restylages et collaborations, le modèle a connu 70 ans riches en émotions.
Bonne nouvelle, Michael se prépare à en vivre autant.