Once upon a time
MilletA Century of Innovations
Today the brand is a global benchmark for highly experienced mountaineers, yet its adventure started out more modestly over one-hundred years ago, making shopping bags.
Through the decades, the Millet company’s story has been written on the strength of its technical innovations and prestigious expeditions led by iconic mountaineers. Millet is one of the local companies who have succeeded in transmitting the dynamism and expertise from Annecy’s region well beyond French borders.
Let’s take a look back over a hundred years recounting the Millet family’s love story with the mountains, when they lost sight of each other, and then retied the knot in 2021 to seal their destinies once again.
© Matt Georges
It all started back in 1921, when Marc and Hermance Millet, who were running a grocery store at the time near Lyon, began making shopping bags for their customers. People loved them so much the business really took off, to such an extent the couple abandoned the grocery and focused uniquely on making bags. In 1928, Marc’s poor health drew them back to Annecy close to the mountains, where they established their workshop. After his death in 1937, Hermance took over the business, with the help of her two sons, René and Raymond, who would later fly the nest themselves in 1945.
Little by little the bags were finetuned, kitted with shoulder straps, and then frames; sketching the contours of the first contemporary backpacks designed especially for high-mountain use. Strong bonds were forged with renowned mountaineers such as René Desmaison, Louis Lachenal from Annecy, whom they met at the CAF (French Alpinist Club), and Italian Walter Bonatti, who all contributed their expertise and tested the products in situ. One of the results of these collaborations will remain engraved in our memories: the iconic yellow Sherpa 50 backpack, which kitted out an entire generation.
© Collection Millet / Millet brothers and Walter Bonatti (1959)
Millet reaches the peak with the first 8,000m
Thanks to Louis Lachenal, suddenly the brand is propelled to the summit, literally. On 3rd June 1950, he accomplishes a momentous achievement and a world first, because himself and Maurice Herzog are part of the team to be the first men to reach the notorious Annapurna summit at an altitude over 8,000 metres above sea level. The brand supplied both men with a backpack specially designed for the expedition, the “Annapurna 50”, which will remain written in history as the first backpack to have reached the “roof of the world”, with photographic proof.
© Collection Graziani / Yannick Graziani on the summit of Annapurna (2013)
From now on, the Millet brothers’ company is unstoppable. They press on with their quest to design ever-more technical and comfortable equipment, which are tested by mountaineers on their toughest expeditions in the most extreme conditions. Subsequently, in the 1960s, canvas is abandoned in favour of nylon, which is lighter and more importantly water resistant. The 1980s sees the first down jackets spring to life, and Gore-Tex® jackets quickly follow.
With the surge in leisure activities, business is booming, and the workshops are transformed into a hive of activity with the employees working tirelessly. At the start of the 1950s it was a tight-knit group of fifteen employees, by 1980 the workforce had flourished to one hundred and twenty. “The whole family was helping out,” remembers Françoise Millet, René’s daughter.
“We were manufacturing all year round. Our biggest client was the Vieux Campeur. Sometimes they would call to order 200 backpacks to be ready two days later!”
New life and new projects by "Millet"!
After being resold, suffering various ups and downs by successively being passed into the hands of different buyers, the brand eventually returns to the family nest in 2021, to be taken over by Jean-Pierre Millet, the founders’ grandson, and his nephew Romain – who had already been inside the company since 2020.
The brand has already been committed to an eco-responsible approach since 2005 and intends to pursue this course of action through local production, a carbon footprint establishment (with a zero-carbon objective by 2025), climbing rope collection and recycling schemes, active participation in cleaning up the Mer de Glace (Chamonix), and cleaning expeditions to the 8,000m Himalayan summit base camps. A multitude of actions which testify their desire to combine innovation, excellence, and sustainable development.
© Matt Georges
Last September, a Millet store opened in Annecy’s newly inaugurated Nouvelles Galeries. The fifth in France and the seventh in Europe. The store’s layout is designed to reflect its mountain heritage: rock-shaped central islands, a red rope that travels around the store in reference to mountaineers, and photos that trace the brand’s one-hundred-year history… and the adventure continues!
- © Matt Georges
Journalist: Aude Pollet-Thiollier
Translation: Kate Dawson