How did Kangol become the largest hat manufacturer in the world?
Jakob Henryk Spreiregen (1894 – 1982) was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland. He emigrated with his family to France in 1910, and adopted the name Jacques Henry Sergene.
Spreiregen emigrated to England to escape the First World War in 1915. As “Jacques Spreiregen” he was manufacturing hats at 28 Castle Street, London by 1916. He also imported basque berets from France, which proved popular.
Spreiregen served in the British army and was naturalised as a British citizen in 1920. He was a tall and courtly man.
Kangol and mass production
The Kangol brand was introduced from 1930. The name was derived from K for knitting, ANG for Angora and OL for wool.
As the prospect of another conflict in Europe began to appear increasingly certain, Spreiregen reasoned that there would be a likely increase in demand for military berets. With funding from the Cumberland Development Company, he leased the former Ainsworth thread mill in Cleator, North West England, from 1938.
Machinery was imported from a beret factory in France. Spreiregen was initially assisted by his two nephews, Joseph (born 1913) and Sylvain Meisner (1916 – 2001). There was an initial labour force of 35 people. Competition from Czech imports meant that the business was not an immediate success.
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.
The British Olympic team of 1948 wore Kangol berets.
Kangol opened a new factory at Frizington, Cleator in 1950. The new site 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.
Kangol produced around six million berets every year by 1953, and employed 110 people.
Kangol used around one million lbs of woollen spun yarn every year, and its principal supplier, Thompson Bros of Huddersfield, was acquired in 1953.
The British armed forces continued to be a significant customer following the Second World War, purchasing 16 percent of beret production in 1953. A further 15 percent of berets were exported to 49 different countries.
Spreiregen introduced the 504 cap from 1954. It enjoyed immediate success in the United States.
Kangol Magnet was established as a subsidiary to manufacture fibreglass safety helmets from 1954. It later expanded into seat belts.
Womens fashion hats began to be produced from 1955.
The loss-making manufacture of fur felt hats at Carricks of Carlisle was discontinued in 1956-7.
Around 120,000 berets a week were produced by 1957. About half of all civilian berets were exported. The British armed forces acquired around 10,000 berets a week.
45,000 to 50,000 hats were produced every week by 1960.
Kangol was one of the largest manufacturers of crash helmets in the world by 1960, with a weekly output of 4,000.
The end of national service in Britain in 1960 dramatically lessened the demand for berets. Kangol turned its attention to exports and the fashion market. A worldwide distribution network was established, and 70 percent of production was exported by 1964-5.
Sylvain Meisner was managing director of the Kangol by 1964.
Kangol held one third of the British seat belt market by 1964.
A factory was opened in South Africa in 1965 with a productive capacity of 1.2 million berets a year, which would cover “the bulk” of demand in that market.
Mary Quant (1930 – 2023), inventor of the miniskirt, and Pierre Cardin (1922 – 2020) 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. From its factory in Carlisle it produced over 40 percent of all seat belts in the United Kingdom.
Kangol held 40 percent of the British crash helmet market by 1971.
Acquisition by American Safety Equipment
Kangol was acquired by American Safety Equipment, a seat belt manufacturer, for £3.2 million in 1972. Company directors, who held 42 percent of the Kangol equity, recommended the offer. Jacques Spreiregen took the opportunity to retire as company chairman.
Due to the growth of the seat belt business, Kangol Helmets was relocated to Stranraer in Scotland from 1973.
Kangol produced four million hats in 1975. The principal export market was Sweden, followed by the United States, then Japan and Canada. Exports to the US amounted to around 200,000 caps in 1976, accounting for over £1 million in sales. The headwear division won the Queen’s Award for Export in 1966, 1971 and 1978.
Kangol was the largest hat manufacturer in the world by 1978.
American Safety Equipment was acquired by Marmon Group of Chicago in 1978. Marmon afforded local management significant autonomy. The seat belt factory in Carlisle was expanded that year, and a further 200 people were employed.
The Kangol beret enjoyed a huge growth in sales among the African American community in New York from the late 1970s. Kangol headwear was versatile, as well as aspirational yet affordable. Kangol hats adorned the heads of numerous hip-hop notables, including Grandmaster Flash and LL Cool J.
Kangol acquired a millinery factory in Luton in 1979. There they installed Graham Smith (born 1938), a well-regarded milliner, as their design director from 1981. Smith would design Kangol hats that would be worn by Diana, Princess of Wales (1961 – 1997), among others.
Marmon Group was keen to divest Kangol Helmets due its small turnover and its exposure to lawsuits in the United States. To prevent the closure of the factory, management bought the company for £450,000 in 1981. The former subsidiary did not retain the rights to the Kangol brand name.
Kangol recorded sales of 4.8 million hats in America in 1985. The kangaroo logo was added from 1985, supposedly because American consumers were requesting “the kangaroo hats”.
Kangol acquired J W Myers of Leeds, its major British hat-making rival, in 1990.
Kangol employed 690 people at Cleator and Frizington in 1995. The Cleator site was the largest hat factory in Britain.
Licensed production of Kangol branded sportswear began from 1995, and shoes from 1996. Kangol received five to seven percent of wholesale value for licensed sales.
Kangol headwear made $40 million in sales in 1996, and sales of licensed products amounted to around $100 million.
Due to rising manufacturing costs in Britain, Kangol had lost some valuable contracts. As a response to this, a factory was opened in Panyu City, China, where production costs were lower, in 1996.
Five million Kangol hats were exported every year by 1997.
Management buyout and subsequent ownership
Kangol headwear was subject to a management buyout for £32 million in May 1997, with financial backing from Kleinwort Capital, a private equity firm. Marmon retained the seat belt operations in Carlisle, but lost the rights to the Kangol brand.
Headwear sales were declining. The Cleator factory was closed in 1997, although the site continued to act as a distribution centre. The Luton factory was closed in 1998.
Kangol was the largest designer hat company in the world by 2000, with global sales of around $100 million a year, but the business was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The unprofitable 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 labour costs. The Cleator and Frizington workforce was reduced from 700 to 200 people between 1996 and 2001.
The Kangol brand was moved upmarket in order to improve profit margins. Prices were increased, and distribution was restricted to high quality retailers.
Bollman, an American hat manufacturer, acquired the operating assets and the licence to produce Kangol headwear from 2001. The Frizington factory was closed with the loss of 80 jobs in 2001. The majority of production was relocated to China.
The licensing rights for Kangol, excluding headwear, were sold to August Equity Trust for an estimated £30 million in 2004, and then sold on to Sports Direct for £12 million in 2006.
Bollman closed the Cleator distribution site with the loss of 32 jobs in 2009.
Sports Direct sold a 51 percent stake and the full intellectual property rights of Kangol to Bollman for $21.4 million in 2023.