In the 11th century, during the period of history known as the Middle Ages, William the Conqueror – the first Norman King of England - established the cloth-and-wool-manufacturing village of Saint James in Normandy, France, located on Mont Saint-Michel Bay. The sheep responsible for the village’s wool were bred in the local salt marshes. As such, the Saint James weavers discovered that this particular wool contained the ideal strain for knitting sweaters, hats and other nautical gear for the local sailors and fishermen. Flash to the 19th century, when the village became an official brand that continued to carry on a 1,000-year-old tradition in textiles. Furthermore, this was the time during which the now-world-famous Breton Fisherman Sweater was born. The garlic merchants of Brittany, or the marchands d’ail, wore this particular sweater as an unofficial uniform. Nicknamed the “chandail”, derived from a shortened form of “marchands d’ail”, this garment was created by the wives of the local merchants and fisherman, having sourced the wool from Saint James, who plied their craft via a “secret stitch” technique, a technique that would be guarded and passed down through generations of mothers and daughters. These sweaters proved superior to the competition, providing unsurpassed protection from and resistance to cold, water and wind. An instant classic was born. Thus, when you wear a Saint James garment, you are literally wearing history, paying homage to the sea and to one of France’s ancestral crafts.

Those already familiar with the brand know that it is all about the stripes – stripes, stripes and more stripes. Did you know, however, that these stripes provide a window into ancient Breton lore? Measuring precisely 20mm in width, each of the 21 stripes found on the authentic nautical combed cotton jersey shirt, an integral part of the official French Navy uniform since 1871, corresponds to a Napoleonic naval victory against the British. More importantly, in regards to appeal on a wide scale, stripes are the quintessential unisex design. As a result, in 1980, Saint James became an export pioneer, as well as one of the oldest French garment houses to have ventured out into the international market. Their soon-to-be worldwide popularity planted its seeds in Tokyo, Japan. It was not long before Saint James became the official “French maritime tradition ambassador”. With that, the brand would continue to rapidly grow.

Saint James

Saint James

Saint James

The beginning of the ‘90s saw a significant step in the trajectory that has resulted in Saint James’ current organisation. Led by a tenacious determination to keep jobs and workshops in France, the employees bought back the company. This was a sublime win for “human capital” over pure profit. Following control of the company returning to the employees, the atelier – or private workshops – expanded considerably in square footage over the next five years. Despite this expansion, Saint James remained very much a “human-sized company”. This rung of evolution allowed production to be organised into multiple and varied workshops, with each possessing an independent task focus. The organisational shift also lent a greater degree of work freedom to employees. On the heels of the recently adopted employee-focussed culture, a significant increase in the fan base of all things French and nautical and with the new millennium quickly approaching, Saint James set out to, first and foremost, grow its business responsibly. As an overwhelmingly positive indication that this goal was being met with success, the French Government awarded the atelier the Ethics and Governance trophy in 2005.

Not surprisingly, Saint James clothing is a source of immense national pride. Its nautical stripes represent one of the most recognisable brands throughout the world. In 2013, Saint James was awarded France’s most prestigious government recognition, that of the EPV, Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant. The EPV is the country’s highest distinction for artisanal and industrial excellence. And it makes perfect sense. Those stripes hold incredibly wide appeal. They are fun, frivolous, casual and reminiscent of seafaring adventures. Women, men and children can equally enjoy and connect with the spirit of Saint James, a spirit that the French would, in fact, describe as “né de la mer”, “born of the sea”.

Saint James is available at Euro Collections, 1180 High Street, Armadale

Lifestyle & Design

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