Behind the Brand: Saint James

Saint James is the original purveyor of the iconic Breton stripe.

I'm going to let that land...

It seems simplistic, but staking that claim is a really big deal. Now, I've already disclosed that I represent this brand, and I couldn't be more proud to do so. As an effect, I wear Saint James stripes most days, and, thusly, they've become apart of my 'uniform'. But beyond stripes being a wardrobe staple for me--and most, quite honestly--this brand is the real deal.

 
Children of Mr. Bonte, a former President of Saint James | Photo courtesy of Saint James

Children of Mr. Bonte, a former President of Saint James | Photo courtesy of Saint James

Archive photo inside Saint James' atelier | Photo courtesy of Saint James

Archive photo inside Saint James' atelier | Photo courtesy of Saint James

 

I think my favorite part of its history is the fact that Saint James was born with real intention, out of function, before fashion. The village of Saint-James, France, was established by William the Conqueror in 1067. The city, surrounded by waterways and trading ports, was frequented by sailors venturing along the English channels. Those sailors necessitated a garment that'd protect them against the elements: wind and water. Villagers of Saint-James had access to the wool from local sheep in Mont Saint-Michel, and began knitting sweaters so tightly they were considered nearly waterproof and the "second skin" of sailors. For this reason, in 1858, the French Navy adopted the seaman sweaters as part of their official uniform, and commissioned 21 stripes be fashioned on them, representative of Napoleon's 21 naval victories over the British fleet. To date, Saint James still outfits the French Navy, Ground Army and the French police force.

Fast forward to 1889, at which point Saint James formally incorporated as a fashion company, as it is today--still privately owned by its employees. And it was in the 20th century that Coco Chanel, herself, popularized Saint James' lighter weight cotton striped marinière as the iconic, unisex piece it is today. From that point forward, stripes were a signature of French style, worn by people of all walks of life: Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Picasso, Jean-Paul Gaultier, so on and so forth. For over a century, Saint James has continued to produce its signature seaman sweaters and striped pieces in cotton, carded cotton and wool, as well as full collections for Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer for the past sixty years.

 
Production photos via Saint James

Production photos via Saint James

 

As far as sustainability goes, this brand was producing "slow fashion" and "investment pieces" well before these became buzz words.

  1. Saint James' managerial structure is incredibly unique, in that workers within the atelier (all 300 of the 3,000 villagers of Saint-James that the company employs), operate in teams of 8. They're equipped to perform various aspects of production, so as to not be pigeonholed into the same, monotonous task day-in and day-out (or suffer from injuries associated with monotony as such).
  2. They only produce two collections per year, as it's a sustainable output level for the workers.
  3. When applicable, they opt to use faux fur instead of real fur, even though it actually costs the company more money to do so.
  4. Materials are meticulously sourced from known distributors, ensuring they're the highest quality, as well as treated in-house very specifically (i.e. All the wool is tested for its water content upon arrival to the factory. Since it's a living material, the temperature within the atelier is maintained precisely between 23 and 25 Celsius (73.4 to 77 Farenheit) and 71% humidity, so as to not vary from the original condition in which it arrived.
  5. During production, garments are cut out of sized panels of fabric, so as to create minimal waste. The fashion industry is the second (only to oil) largest polluting industry in the world.
  6. A signature seaman sweater produced at Saint James' atelier (everything is made in France) requires 25,000 yards of wool, 18 particular steps, and 15 work days. Talk about slow fashion. But, it's this sort of craftsmanship that lends an item to lasting decades--it's entirely common for someone to pass a Saint James sweater down from generation to generation.
 
 

The 'made in France' piece is truly hard to come by, as so many clothing brands outsource production to far off lands where they're completely out of touch with working conditions and the production process. The Saint James atelier is incredible--you can even visit and take a tour--and there's not only offices and a studio where the designers work, but a store that's open to the public... on site. Moreover, Saint James has a status designated by the French State that literally denotes the company as a "living heritage brand" for their expertise in knitting. Only 43 Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear French fashion brands (including Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès) have this mark: Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant (EPV).

For so many reasons, including, but certainly not limited to, its deep, rich history, its beautiful, high-quality garments, its commitment to sustainability, and its incredible staff (from President to store employee), Saint James is one of the most amazing brands.

To shop online and learn more: www.saint-james.com

To visit their NYC boutiques, head to: Saint James West Village at 319 Bleecker Street or Saint James Upper East Side at 41 East 78th Street.