From Montauk to Malibu, there's an underlying theme at this summer parties—all the cool kids seem to be sporting sailor stripes. And why not? There's a plethora of them around right now. APC, H&M, AE, A/X and every other store with an acronym for a name seems to stock the nautical shirt. But there's one company that started it all: Saint James.
Despite the anglo sounding name, the company is actually French—based in the city of the same name since 1889. Bordered on three provinces (Normandy, Brittany, and Maine) it's a historically fortified area, founded by William the Conqueror in the Middle Ages. The origin of the striped Saint James sweater begins in the 18th century, when it was worn by the French Navy. A solid navy blue sweater was reserved for officers, and the striped variety for sailors. Naval recruits wear a striped tee-shirt during their three month training period.
Up until then, knitwear had been made from wool, but Saint James's secret method of knitting cotton created a unique fabric that provided warmth and waterproofing. It also came with considerable resistance to both the wind and cold, designed to protect a sailor's back. Eventually the sweater's popularity grew when it was donned by everyone from Brigitte Bardot and Coco Chanel to James Dean and Pablo Picasso. Today, the garment has iconic status in its native country—the French equivalent of our Levi's 501.
In the past few years, modern designers have also looked to the iconic knit for inspiration in their own collections. Junya Watanabe did one of his guerilla collaborations with Saint James for the spring of 2008, turning it into a super stylish pea coat that a few fashionable men (ahem!) snapped up. Most recently, J.Crew has also helped popularize the brand by featuring the St. James shirts. Not only are they offering customized shirts by Mister Freedom in Los Angeles, they're also selling smaller pieces, including a pair of socks in their signature striped knit for twenty bucks.