The Origins of Saint James Breton Shirts and Knitwear
The year was 1850. Leon Legallais, the mayor of the village of Saint-James in Normandy, France, founded a spinning mill named “Moulin du Prieur.” The family business then began to weave and dye local wool produced from “salt meadows” sheep raised on the banks of the Couesnon in the bay of the famous Mont Saint-Michel. The high quality wool was sold to local haberdasheries and hosiery stores which made knit hats, socks and other clothing items.
Without knowing it, Léon Legallais built the foundations of a brand that would span over centuries, becoming an emblem of French fashion and an heir to ancestral know-how.
In 1889, the Moulin du Prieur workshop officially became the Societe Anonyme des Filatures de Saint James.
Léon Legallais continued to manufacture skeins that were sold to haberdasheries in Normandy and Brittany. He also decided to innovate and launched the first Saint James garment: the Breton fisherman sweater.
Made with a tight-knit wool from the salt marsh sheep, water resistant and warm, the “chandail” (as it came to be known) owes its name to a side business of Breton and Norman fishermen. Between fishing seasons in the North Atlantic, the French coast fishermen crossed the Channel to sell garlic on the south coast of England. They announced their presence by shouting, "Marchand d'ail! Marchand d'ail!" (Garlic merchant! Garlic merchant!), and the British would hear "… chand'ail, chand'ail!" (... sweater, sweater! ). This is how the name of the iconic Saint James garment was born.
During this time, the Breton fisherman sweater was worn by all Terre-Nuevas, those sailors who went fishing for cod in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Canada, on the banks of Newfoundland.
These fishermen faced 6 or 7 months of extreme conditions, braving the bad weather, the rough seas, and the hard work. The sweater had to protect them from the cold without hindering their movements to not complicate maneuvering on the boats.
In the following century and beyond, the style would become a classic with the French and leading fashion designers.
Let's take a step back in time: here we are in 1950, in post-war France. Julien Bonte takes over the Saint James spinning mills and decides to modernize the company and refocus its activities.
Selling balls of yarn and skeins is a thing of the past. From now on, Saint James is concentrating on the manufacture of the "Vrai Pull Marin" (Genuine Fisherman Sweater), a name actually registered by the brand. This strategic decision propels the company to the rank of "French leader in nautical knitwear."
Paid holidays, first introduced in 1936 for two weeks per year, are extended: the French can now go on vacation for three weeks.
The lengthening and generalization of paid leave encouraged the French to take more vacation time, in increasing numbers, and to spend the summer by the sea. This trend continued in the 1970s, following the vote for the fourth week of paid leave and the wind of freedom blowing after May 1968.
From the English Channel to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Coast, casual sailing attracted more and more vacationers, who were enthusiastically adopting the nautical style. In 1972, Bernard Bonte succeeded his father Julien Bonte as the company's head, and renamed the company Les Tricots Saint James in 1970.
Bernard Bonte contributed to democratizing nautical style clothing and created seasonal collections that appealed to the French on vacation. Until then exclusively knitwear, Saint James clothing became also woven. New categories of clothing emerged, such as shirts and pants.
In 1976 the company, still located in the village of Saint James, expanded and acquired new offices and workshops. From 1980, the brand started exporting to Japan and then worldwide, benefiting from an international aura.
In 1990, to preserve the company's future and keep jobs in France, as Bernard Bonte wished, the company was bought by its own employees. Yannick Duval chaired the company's management board from then on.
The company reorganized itself, emphasizing teamwork even more, thanks to creating autonomous groups allowing employees to change jobs regularly. Saint James grew and gained market shares while continuing to expand internationally.
New collections of shirts, pants, and jackets emerged, adopting a "casual chic" nautical style that the brand still perfectly illustrates today. The teams moved to new premises in 1996, before a further expansion five years later. In 2001, the factory and offices spread over 120,000 sq ft.
In 2013, Luc Lesénécal, former deputy CEO of the Isigny Sainte-Mère dairy cooperative, took over the reins of the company, assisted by Patrice Guinebault, former deputy CFO of Saint James. The brand's clothing seduced designers, and the Breton striped shirt became an iconic piece of French fashion.
Today, Saint James has more than 300 employees and a network of around 60 stores, of which approximately 30 are wholly-owned. Five new stores open each year, illustrating the continued success of a brand with a strong identity and ancestral textile know-how.