Leave your hat on: Kangol

Kangol is one of the best known headwear brands in the world.


Jakob Henryk Spreiregen (1894 – 1982) was born in Warsaw, Poland to Jewish parents. The family emigrated to France in 1910, and Jakob adopted the name Jacques Henry Sergene.

To escape the war, Spreiregen emigrated to England in 1915. By 1916, as “Jacques Spreiregen” he was manufacturing hats at 28 Castle Street, London. He also imported basque berets from France, which proved popular.

Following service in the British army, Spreiregen was naturalised as a British citizen in 1920.

The Kangol brand was introduced in 1930. The name was derived from K for knitting, ANG for Angora and OL for wool.

With war in Europe looming, Spreiregen reasoned that there wouls be an imminent increase in demand for berets. He leased a former linen mill at Cleator in 1938, aided with funding from the Cumberland Development Company. He furnished it with machinery from a factory in France that he owned. It initially employed a staff of four.

Kangol became the major beret supplier to the British armed forces during the Second World War. All manufacture was dedicated to the army, and production reached one million berets a year.

Field Marshal Montgomery wears a Kangol beret
Field Marshal Montgomery wears a Kangol beret

A new factory at Frizington, Cleator, was opened in 1950. The new factory allowed the company to meet demand, and profits subsequently increased exponentially.

Kangol became a public company with an authorised capital of £200,000 in 1952.

William Carrick & Sons of Carlisle, a fur felt hat manufacturer, was acquired in 1952. The takeover added a workforce of 100 to Kangol, to give a total of 500. Part of the Carricks production facility was given over to the manufacture of Kangol berets.

Thompson Bros of Huddersfield, woollen spinners, was acquired in 1953. By this point Kangol was using around one million lbs of woollen spun yarn every year, and Thompson Bros was its largest supplier.

In 1953, 15 percent of berets were exported, and 16 percent went to the British armed forces. By 1954 Kangol berets were exported to 49 countries.

Kangol developed a subsidiary, Kangol Magnet, to manufacture fibreglass safety helmets from 1954. It later branched out into seat belts.

The loss-making manufacture of fur felt hats at Carricks of Carlisle was discontinued in 1956-7.

70 percent of production was exported by 1964-5.

In 1965 a factory was opened in South Africa with a productive capacity of 1.2 million berets a year, which would cover “the bulk” of demand in that market.

Mary Quant (inventor of the miniskirt) and Pierre Cardin designed berets for Kangol in 1966. Exports represented 66 percent of turnover for the headwear division by 1969.

Kangol Magnet was the largest manufacturer of seat belts in Europe by 1969. It produced over 40 percent of all seat belts in the United Kingdom from its factory in Carlisle.

Kangol was acquired by American Safety Equipment, a seat belt manufacturer, in 1972, in a deal which valued the company at over £3 million. At this juncture Jacques Spreiregen took the opportunity to retire as company chairman.

The headwear division won the Queen’s Award for Export in 1966, 1971 and 1978.

American Safety Equipment was acquired by Marmion in 1978.

The Kangol beret exploded in popularity among the African American community in New York from the late 1970s. Kangol was recording annual sales in America of 4.8 million hats by 1985.

Samuel L Jackson is well known for wearing Kangol berets
Samuel L Jackson is well known for wearing Kangol berets

The Cleator factory employed around 300 people in 1986, mostly women.

Kangol acquired its major British hat-making rival, J W Myers of Leeds, in 1990.

A factory was opened in Panyu City, China in 1996.

Kangol was acquired by Kleinwort Capital, a private equity firm, for £32 million in 1997. The Cleator site employed around 600 people.

The loss-making Leeds factory was closed in 2000, with the loss of 40 jobs. Production was relocated to the Panyu City factory in China, which had lower costs.

The global rights to Kangol headwear were sold to Bollman Headwear of America in 2001.

In 2001 the Fritzington factory was closed with the loss of 80 jobs. Manufacturing also ended at Cleator, which would function as a distribution depot. Most production was relocated to China.

The Kangol rights (excluding headwear) were sold for an estimated £30 million to August Equity Trust in 2004. The Kangol rights (excluding headwear) were acquired by Sports Direct for £12 million in 2006.

Bollman Headwear closed the Cleator site in 2009, with the loss of 32 jobs. Production was relocated to Eastern Europe and the United States.

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