What do the Duchess of Cambridge, Alexa Chung and a sailor have in common? An unlikely little group we agree, but on the right day you could find them all rocking a Breton top. Is there any other piece of clothing that can unite such a disparate fan base? From the best-dressed kids to the hippest of hipsters, the horizontal stripes of a Breton are an undisputed wardrobe staple. But how did a practical military item from France become the go-to piece for fashionistas everywhere?
Decreed as the uniform of the French Navy in 1858, this tightly knitted top was a second skin for those working at sea. And while stripes are now a style choice, back then they were more about making sailors easier to spot if they had fallen overboard.
Legend has it that each of the Breton’s 21 white and 21 blue stripes, in the very specific widths of 2cm and 1cm respectively, represents a victory by Napoleon Bonaparte. But whether this is true or not, the reality is that, since its creation, it has unwittingly become a fashion classic – with a little help from Coco Chanel, naturellement. The designer took inspiration from the local sailors she saw while holidaying on the French coast, and introduced her own interpretation of the Breton in her 1917 collections. And chic cultural icons have been spotted wearing a ‘marinière’ ever since.
James Dean gave it a rebellious edge, Brigitte Bardot made it sexy and Audrey Hepburn went beatnik with it in Funny Face. Pablo Picasso, Edie Sedgwick, Jean Paul Gaultier and Kate Moss have all lent their own unique twist.
The appeal of the Breton is as strong today as ever. Burberry included versions in this season’s collection, the heart-adorned Comme des Garçons Play T-shirts remain a must-have for those in the know, and countless iterations on the high street ensure stripes remain both aspirational and mass market.
So why are we still so enamoured of a simple striped top? Perhaps it’s the inherent Frenchness. Parisian women are revered for their insouciant chic and for those of us not born with that built-in je ne sais quoi, picking up a Breton is an easy and affordable way to copy their seemingly effortless style. For anyone who wants to do French chic right, only one Breton will do: the Saint James. As the label’s current CEO, Luc Lesencal says, ‘Everyone in France has a story about Saint James.’
Based in the Normandy town of the same name, the company has been in business since 1850, first manufacturing yarns before creating the now-famous wool shirts for sailors. It still makes sweaters for the French Navy, but of its £43 million turnover in 2016, 32 per cent came from exporting its basic striped T-shirts and knits. At the end of this month, for the first time, the UK website will be shoppable (st-james.co.uk).
The label is a favourite with fashion industry insiders too, including stylist to Alexa Chung and Stella contributor Steph Stevens, who’s been wearing Bretons ever since she stole her older brother’s top back in the 1980s. ‘I get mine at Arthur Beale, a nautical shop in London’s Covent Garden,’ she says. ‘I tend to go for Saint James because they’re really good quality and last for ages.’
Every month, almost 239,000 miles of wool is knitted in the Saint James factory by workers who train for two years. Maintaining high standards is part of the company’s success and why it has attracted requests for collaborations from brands such as J Crew, Claudie Pierlot and Coach.
‘To the French, the Breton means holidays, sailing, travelling and authenticity,’ says Jacqueline Petipas, director of collections. ‘Saint James is all about simplicity, beauty and quality. We twist our iconic pieces to create modern styles that can stand for many seasons.’
And so the stripe lives on. It’s seen at the school gates, the pub and Fashion Week, lending the wearer a casual elegance that’s hard to beat. As Luc Lesencal so eloquently puts it, ‘We don’t want to be fashionable, we want to be timeless.’