Odds are you have (at least) one striped shirt hanging in your closet. It’s an oft-talked-about staple; a requisite piece for trying to nail the whole French-girl aesthetic. There are even entire contemporary labels with French-sounding names dedicated solely to the art of the stripe; Net-a-Porter recently teamed up with J.Crew on a Breton-striped capsule. But unlike some “Parisian style” essentials, the striped shirt is actually deeply rooted in the country’s history: To this day, you’ll find small boutiques dotting the coastlines of Normandy and Brittany advertising “marinières” for sale.
The striped shirt dates back to the 19th century, and its popularity is largely owed to Saint James. The company's classic striped T-shirt has long enjoyed cult status in our book, and among other fashion folks, too. It’s not a household name, though, and its stripes are not the cheapest around. How has the small, Normandy-based brand been in the business for centuries and garnered a strong, extremely loyal fan base? Saint James invited Refinery29 to visit its atelier in Normandy, still located in the same town the brand gets its name from, for an inside look.
But the fascinating history of stripes predates Saint James. Way back in the day, stripes had a much less quaint reputation: The pattern was considered “the devil’s clothing,” according to historian Michel Pastoureau. (He wrote an entire book on the subject, in fact.) During the Middle Ages, the pattern was associated with the wayward — prostitutes, criminals, outcasts — and from the 19th century through the mid-20th century, prisoners wore striped uniforms to be easily distinguishable from civilians. But the pattern's negative rep started to dissipate in the 18th century, circa the French and American Revolutions.
In 1858, the striped shirt got an image revamp thanks to the French navy, which changed its uniform to a Vareuse-style sweater made from canvas-like wool with a blue-and-white striped pattern, a.k.a. “la marinière.” Legend has it that the original design featured 21 stripes, in honor of Napoleon’s victories against the British navy, per the BBC. And legend has it that indigo, a dye resistant to salty sea air, was expensive, so it was used sparingly and interspersed with white to trim costs. There was a purely practical rationale, too: Stripes were easy to spot if a crew member fell overboard.
It's unclear whether stripes were popularized in France by the official naval uniform or by fishermen's de facto uniforms, as the latter wore “chandail" sweaters as early as the 17th century, but both are closely associated with the mid-1800s in northern France. This is where Saint James comes into the story. The country's well-established but disjointed wool-production industry dated back to the 11th century, and wool was highly sought-after by fishermen for retaining warmth, even when wet. The Legallais family began to consolidate independent makers in the small town of Saint-James in 1850 to focus on wool workwear, specifically the naval collared sweater; Saint James became an official, incorporated company in 1889.
The striped shirt was still considered strictly workwear for a few more decades, until leisure time became an official thing in 1936 with the introduction of paid vacation. Coco Chanel also helped the item become an off-duty fashion statement (and commercialized the look, too): Because people were taking time off on the country's coasts, she added “le style marin” to her Deauville boutique in 1913. Chanel was the first designer to design striped pieces in jersey, not wool — and to market the French staple expressly as leisurewear.
Meanwhile, Armor Lux started as an underwear company in Brittany and later became Saint James’ biggest competitor. (Nowadays, most coastal French “marinière” shops prominently indicate that they stock Saint James and Armor Lux.) "There’s usually a sailor or a fisherman in our families — here, everything revolves around the sea, and as such, we live in stripes," said Jacqueline Petipas, Saint James’ director of collections, who actually hails from the town of Saint-James. There is a way to distinguish those stripes, in fact: Saint James patented its specific pattern ratio — two-to-one, base color-to-stripe — about 50 years ago. French maritime apparel's commercial turn in the 1910s and 1920s was interrupted by the war, as Normandy was occupied by the Germans until 1944. Post-liberation, Saint James’ headquarters even operated as a temporary airbase for U.S. forces; the region was focused on reconstruction.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the striped shirt became popular among Left Bank-dwelling artistes in Paris, as well as Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and Brigitte Bardot. The latter was especially big on stripes, per Benjamin Auzimour, U.S. managing director of Saint James. "She was a great balance between the exclusivity of the New Wave and a more mainstream impact,” he explained. Fashion designers toyed with the print, too: Yves Saint Laurent’s inaugural couture collection in spring 1962 had a “marinière” theme.
Concurrently, the French wool-production industry changed: Factories were once one-stop shops for spinning, dyeing, and manufacturing wool, but Saint James opted to focus solely on product assembly, outsourcing its textiles. (Today Saint James' stripes and its wool products are still produced in its Normandy factory; the rest of its collection is manufactured in Portugal, Turkey, and Ukraine.) In the 1970s, Saint James and its competitors alike adopted a new production technique of knitting to an exact silhouette's shape, as opposed to cutting panels. The result: a less wasteful process and a more comfortable garment.
These French coastal brands didn't embrace cotton, the go-to striped-shirt material nowadays, until the 1980s. That's also when Saint James gained traction in other parts of France, began exporting its products to different markets, branched into full ready-to-wear collections — and started getting a little weird with its signature stripes. This period is very memorable (read: comical) to Saint James employees. “Interestingly enough, there was no change in the creative team [in the 1980s], so those more daring collections were coming from the same brains,” said Luc Lesénécal, Saint James' CEO. “However, in those collections, you’ll notice that the boldest moves were on wool sweaters — particularly some that were meant for skiers.” The brand may have felt pressure to stay relevant amid the rising popularity in the industry of materials like fleece, he said.
Saint James didn’t have a retail presence outside of its native Normandy for a while; it didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the late 20th century via third-party catalogs advertising “les tricots Saint James.” (Beyond Stateside sales, the brand also outfitted the U.S. team for the 1977 America’s Cup.) In the 1990s, the company opened stores in Asia, which is still one of its biggest markets; its first U.S. location opened in 2005 (Armor Lux followed shortly after, arriving Stateside in 2011). The brand still doesn’t have wholesale accounts with big department stores, only “mom and pop shops," says Auzimour. It may not be hanging on the racks at your local mall, but Saint James has a very carefully groomed rep for its stripes. It has a slightly-higher-than-most price point (a cotton T-shirt costs $69 to $169 online), but also an elusiveness factor: Unless you’re shopping online or in New York, it's hard to find a stockist. The brand is currently working on beefing up its disjointed e-commerce presence.
Petipas actually returned to her hometown for the role after years working in fast fashion. “One is founded on volume at a low price, the other is rooted in time, quality, durability, and the passing on of a technique that is centuries old,” she explained of her previous and current gigs. Saint James' slow production pace affords designers the time and space to really practice their craft — a total luxury in today's fashion landscape. “We’re more artisans, since we’re given more time to realize beautiful pieces," Petipas said. "Our creative process is one of fidelity with the same knitting ateliers we’ve had for years right next to us, since we only have to go across the hall to see them.”
In the past few years, the brand has adopted a more global strategy, leveraging its expertise with the buzz of other of-the-moment brands via collaborations. In 2011, it let artist and entrepreneur André Saraiva — better known as Mr. A — add some graffiti to its classic naval shirt. A capsule for Barneys New York followed in 2012; then there was a pair-up with Coach in 2013. Other iconic fans who have donned Saint James' stripes over the years include Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, and Jean Paul Gaultier adopted them as his unofficial uniform. (A nautical aesthetic still permeates Gaultier's personal closet, runway collections, and even his Diet Coke bottles.) They've long been an established emblem of cool — although the brand has struggled to capitalize on that.
Other brands have banked on Saint James' French-cool-girl vibes. Way before Vetements tapped a whopping 18 labels to reimagine its staples à la streetwear, Junya Watanabe plucked Saint James to create pieces for its spring ’08 menswear show. Now the brand has a legal entity, SJ La Manufacture, to lend its “savoir faire” to other brands needing a hit of stripes. "I’m proud to say that the highest-profile fashion designers have used Saint James as a private-label manufacturer,” Lesénécal said, though he couldn't divulge any names.
Millennials might know Saint James via its ongoing pair-up with J.Crew, which started in 2010. Initially, the retailer simply stocked Saint James’ stripes at its stores and online, which evolved into exclusive “Saint James for J.Crew” designs. “Each time we enter a new country, we seek out a local collaboration — either with an artist or a designer,” Jenna Lyons told Refinery29 when J.Crew opened its first Paris store last year. "What is the perfect complement to anything French? There was no other choice — it had to be the Saint James striped boat-neck tee.”
Collaborations are one of three strategies Lesénécal is employing to increase Saint James’ global rep. “We try to focus on companies with the same strategy, same history,” he said. His M.O. is less about cracking down on stripe competitors and more about building brand awareness for Saint James and its history, even on its home turf. (He says even some people in France don’t know Saint James is French because of its anglicized name.) The two other steps in his plan: “Go make the brand more youthful,” he explains, and offer more products, like 2017's rollout of linen items and a swimwear range.
Saint James also heralds its ethical practices: The company makes all of its factories abroad sign charters that guarantee fair wages and hours. Product-wise, the brand's wool and cotton pieces are handmade and scrutinized for quality during the “raccoutrage” stage by a specially trained committee of seamstresses, who meticulously inspect every garment to remove post-knitting impurities and repair slipped stitches or holes. This process earned Saint James the French government's “EPV” designation, awarded to just 43 haute couture and ready-to-wear companies nationally.
This is certainly slow fashion, but the company is still working on making its products sustainable. A few years ago, Saint James collaborated with Two Thirds on its first-ever organic-cotton striped shirt. But Lesénécal says both its atelier and its consumer base weren’t totally ready for this fully green product, specifically when it came to the shrink factor: This particular shirt shrank 15% compared to the normal 7%. But the brand plans to explore this further. “We’re currently studying how to integrate the use of linen to our designs,” Lesénécal said, given how much of the world’s linen supply comes from Normandy. Eventually, Saint James wants to establish what Lesénécal calls “a ‘farm to garment’ cycle between the local linen producers and our knitters at Saint James,” as well as source wool locally (as opposed to abroad) — something that’ll make the company and its processes more green.
A centuries-old company still has room to grow, but its core product is what keeps bringing people back. “It all comes down to the strong values that guide our creations,” Lesénécal says. “When people choose Saint James — and it’s true of my own grandmother in the 1950s in rural France as it is today of a twentysomething-year-old in Brooklyn — they do so because they share in its values, more or less consciously.” Besides the company's rich history and sense of transparency, the timelessness of those signature stripes means you won't be tossing that striped shirt next season. And that’s the kind of shopping we can get behind.
Disclosure: Saint James paid for my travel and accommodations in France for this story.