In 1917, Coco Chanel unveiled her ‘Nautical Collection’, having been inspired by the naval shirt’s infinite potential. This marked the evolution of a functional military garment to a fashion statement on a global scale, emanating Gallic chic and easy cool. “Coco Chanel just saw the importance of this universal garment,” Marco Pettruci, Export Manager and company oracle of Armor Lux, tells me. Founded in 1938, Armor Lux is one of the most august purveyors of the Breton shirt, and inextricably linked to the heritage and tale of the Breton shirt. It’s also a stunning example of a company that’s still to this day fully vertically integrated. Today we, as mindful consumers, care more for the origins and purpose of our clothing. “People appreciate the fact that the Breton stripe is still made in Brittany more and more,” says Pettruci.
It’s also important to note the profound influence Coco Chanel had on womenswear by incorporating it into her collection. Style icon and the original influencer, she liberated the female form, democratised it and set it free by adopting a military garment into contemporary women’s style. It was “a symbol of gender equality”, Benjamin Auzimour, Managing Director of Saint James North America, states. Saint James, founded in 1889, was one of the first companies to start producing Breton shirts after the production moved upwards from a cottage industry. As Chanel once said “Fashion changes, but style endures” and that is the crux of the Breton’s success; in almost 160 years it’s still a reliable wardrobe staple with its function intact.
Since Coco Chanel revolutionised the Breton stripe’s accessibility and inaugurated it into the contemporary vernacular, it wasn't long before it started making appearances in cinema. Professional cowboy John Wayne wore one in Adventures End (1937), as did James Dean whilst filming Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Cary Grant, a man of superior taste, style and panache if ever there was one, wore a Breton with a red bandana beneath — albeit in navy with fine white stripes, it’s still considered a Breton — in To Catch A Thief (1955). It also made its way into the wardrobe of artists and musicians. In 1950, the celebrated photographer Robert Doisneau candidly shot Pablo Picasso at his home in the south of France. “It just looked so natural on him,” Pettruci adds on how Picasso donned the Breton. Those images of Picasso are some of his most iconic; the Breton will forever be tied to it. Andy Warhol in his heyday was also a fan. Jump forward a few decades, Kurt Cobain, the embodiment of teenage angst, often wore stripes as well. Rakish women such as Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn both wore the Breton as well with effortless grace and glamour.
The Breton stripe continues to influence luxury menswear today, both in heritage workwear circles and in high fashion. Kris Van Ache’s Dior Homme Spring/Summer ‘13 collection saw a plentitude of stripes, as did Officine Générale’s Spring/Summer ‘16. Burberry’s Christopher Bailey Autumn/Winter ‘17 collection also paid homage to the Breton. Whilst the traditional Breton will remain the backbone of specialists like Armor Lux, innovation is key; something clearly visible across the brand’s collections. Pettruci notes: “People are eager to see new developments in connection with the stripes, such as a small striped patch on a plain hoodie or stripes used in trousers”.
The Breton stripe might not be a luxury garment, but its genesis and growth into what it is today makes it more than a simple top; a garment whose design and history continue to influence style today. Auzimour succinctly underlines the style’s unique merging of form and function: “function gives a style more depth and more soul.” Pettruci summarises the garment’s ongoing success, saying “It’s a universal garment that fits with a cool weekend look, a cool sportswear look but even when combined in a rather formal context it still fits. It fits men, women and children well, and that is key for an icon to emerge and establish itself.” Vive le Breton!