As French heritage brand Saint James sets its sights on UK expansion, Drapers talks to CEO Luc Lesenecal about authenticity, quality and maritime inspiration.
A purveyor of heritage French Breton T-shirts and high-quality knits, Saint James built its brand on values of quality, tradition and authenticity. From dressing sailors in a small village in Normandy, the brand now operates in 11 different countries, including 50 stockists in the UK. As it prepares to expand its UK operations – a transactional website is launching in March 2017 – Drapers spoke to its CEO Luc Lesenecal about his passion for genuine products, couture techniques and British ambitions.
Luclesenecal1 (copyright d. daguier)
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Can you explain a little of the history of Saint James?
Saint James is a very old company. We were founded in 1889 in the village of Saint James, near Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. As a result of the port nearby, wool and cotton Breton T-shirts became staples for the brand. Over the years, Saint James has made Bretons for sailors and the French Navy. Coco Chanel used to come to the area and she was the one who brought sailors shirts into fashion. From the navy and sailors it went to fashion. Now, customers like our authenticity and quality.
People who buy clothes like stories, but now the big change is that they like real stories. About 18 months ago we opened our factory to visitors, so when people come and visit the factory they can see we are real people who work hard on Saint James.
How would you describe French style?
The company was awarded the EPV mark by the French government in October 2013. Can you explain what that means?
The EPV, Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant, is an official label from the French government which recognises expert know-how. Our specific expertise is knitting. For example, the way we fix the collar to the rest of the jumper: each stitch is put on by hand. That’s a specific knowledge that we have – it takes 18 months for skilled workers in our factory to perfect the technique.
What’s your favourite thing about your job?
Being able to share the Saint James values with my 300 members of staff: freedom, open-mindedness, teamwork, a sense of geographical and historical belonging, and a tradition of quality, loyalty and simplicity.
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What are your plans for Saint James in the UK?
We started wholesaling in the UK about 10 years ago, but we have decided to develop the market more and more. We currently have about 50 accounts, but eventually we’d like to have 100 stockists. We are mainly stocked in independent stores, in the UK and elsewhere. In France, for example we’re stocked in 500 multibrand stores, which are all located in the centre of towns and all of them are independents. That’s something we look to continue in the UK.
We’d like to open a store in London – not at the moment, but in the future we’d like to have a flagship store. We’re going to test things with a new transactional website launching in March. We always push to work with retailers, because our products need to be touched, but we also need to work with the new generation.
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Why is the UK an important market for the brand?
There is a shared story between Saint James and the UK because there’s only a small stretch of sea between us. The new generation in France and the UK have the same values: quality, authenticity, history, traceability.
I’m not worried about Brexit. Yes, there has been an increase in prices – but to help our stores, we spread the difference. We have not increased the prices yet. We will do that in January, but rather than the 15% difference between the euro and sterling, it will be an 8%-10% difference. We want to support our stockists and independent stores.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given?
“Small is beautiful”, from my boss when I started my first job at [Normandy dairy co-operative] Isigny Sainte-Mère.
How do you keep the range fresh?
We have a team of 20 designers based in Saint James and they travel a lot. As we export 40% of our business, they travel to Japan, Korea, the US, London – to see what’s happening in those markets. But their inspiration is always from the sea.
What would we find you doing at the weekend?
I’d be in front of my fireplace at home in Normandy, spending time with my 12-year-old daughter, Lou.
Favourite clothing brand?
Saint James for weekends and smart casual. Paul Smith for suits
Favourite places to shop?
Sauver le Monde des Hommes, a very nice store in Paris
A long weekend in Ibiza
Last book you read?
“‘Un Président Ne Devrait Pas Dire Ça…’ Les Secrets d’un Quinquennat” by Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme.
Last film you watched?
Café Society by Woody Allen
I was at Isigny Sainte-Mère for 24 years