Luc Lesénécal, president of French heritage brand Saint James, talks enduring style and exceptional quality
With a fascinating history dating back to 1889, French womenswear and menswear label Saint James is the original purveyor of Breton tops, classic reefer jackets and fisherman-friendly sweaters. Here we speak to the brand’s Luc Lesénécal, who joined as president in 2013, about the art of creating fashion with enduring quality…
Could you tell us a bit about the history of Saint James?
The brand has a great story that began more than 130 years ago. Its name comes from the place it was born: the village of Saint-James, near Normandy in Mont Saint-Michel Bay. Saint James’ very first garment, a wool Breton top, was created in 1889 for local sailors and the French Navy. This style was then adopted as a fashion item by Coco Chanel, who used to frequent the area. Today Saint James is one of the region’s oldest companies and its life story is part of Norman history. It is a living heritage and stakeholder in an age-old tradition.
What are its best achievements to date?
Our DNA has not changed since the beginning. We are proud of our past and we don’t ever compromise on quality. Saint James was first awarded with the highly prestigious Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant mark (EPV) by the French government in 2012, which was then renewed in 2019 for another five years. This honour gives true recognition of our innovation, excellence, and expertise in knitting. We are a true symbol of exceptional French fashion – so much so that when French President Emmanuel Macron went on his first official USA visit, his gift to Joe Biden was a Saint James Cancale jumper.
What is the brand best known for?
There are few brands that embody French style like Saint James. We offer timeless basics such as the Reefer jacket, Matelot sweater and classic Breton sailor shirt. All styles are reworked every season to keep the collection fresh. Our designers span both technology and art, using ongoing research and innovative skills to remaster traditional materials and techniques.
What are your most iconic products?
Our genuine nautical sweater was inspired by those worn by fishermen to protect themselves from the weather at sea. Its knitting and tight fit offer incomparable qualities and comfort; it is warm, waterproof and highly resistant to wind and cold. It is the iconic garment to go out on the sea, to walk in the city or in the countryside because it is easy to wear, convenient and chic at the same time. Saint James’ La Marinière/ the Breton t-shirt has also stood the test of time. Its story dates back to more than a century and a half ago when it was chosen as the official uniform for the French Navy. Some say the stripes were chosen to make it easier for spotting a man who fell overboard while others believe the specific number of stripes was set in reference to the 21 Napoleonic victories in various battlefields. The garment gradually became a favourite of fishermen and pleasure boaters for work or leisure. Today it is a legendary classic style that can be worn by everyone and never dates.
Why is Saint James a good retail partner for independent retailers in the UK?
We support our stockists with collaborations in events, promoting the brand with unique people and – most importantly – by listening. We offer a loyal partnership with our retailers.
What effect has Brexit had on the business?
Logistics have become more challenging as there’s now a longer process for sending our goods to the UK. Prices have been affected; we have absorbed as much as we can but increases in costs of materials, transportation and electricity have had a knock-on effect. Our priority is quality; we would always rather increase price than decrease the quality of our garments.
How sustainable is Saint James?
Our garments are knitted using pure virgin wool from the Southern Hemisphere, which is spun in Europe and delivered to our workshops. Wool is 100 per cent recyclable and biodegradable – it is a very sustainable material. Plus, it’s easy to maintain and requires very little water to wash. Wool is low permeability so it’s great for producing sweaters, cardigans and coats. It will withstand anything. As sailors will attest to, wool can absorb more than 30 per cent of its weight without feeling wet to touch or losing its insulation properties. Using pure virgin wool for our garments guarantees high quality.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in business year?
2023 has been laborious and long but also stimulating. Beyond the ecological advantages, a complicated economic equation has arisen that must be solved. In a ready-to-wear market that continues to decline, consumers are increasingly careful about what they are spending. They are looking for loyalty and storytelling; it’s not so much about spending but investing in ever-lasting clothes. Shoppers are buying fewer products because of rising inflation, and they are looking to make smarter choices. French-made products carry a high value that appeals to consumers. However, price is the number one obstacle to purchase. We know cost will not go down and that prices will always remain higher in France than abroad. In my opinion, ‘Made in France’ only has a future if it capitalises on exceptional know-how, as recognised by the EPV mark.
What are your hopes for the brand in 2024?
Our biggest wish for next year is to keep going with a +5 per cent growth as we’ve achieved for the past few years. Our dream would be to open an exclusive Saint James boutique, either franchised or our own, in London by 2025.