Yannick Duval: Company Man

The Chairman of Tricots Saint James Reveals the Secrets of the Nautical Brand's Enduring Appeal

A 120-year-old national treasure, Tricots Saint James—the name synonymous with the Breton—is as indispensable to France’s cultural uniform as the neck scarf and the beret. For its fiercely loyal employees (some of whom have been with the company for 40 years) the job is most definitely a case of business and personal. Chairman Yannick Duval—the current guardian of the brand (which is also the official clothier to the French army and navy)—is no exception, with 33 years of service under his belt. Monsieur Duval spoke to NOWNESS about the behind-the-scenes running of the brand, career highlights including a nine-meters-high chandail marin, and perks in the form of his own overflowing vintage Saint James collection.

What is your most memorable moment since joining the company in 1977?

My recruitment. I first met Monsieur Bonte Jr—my predecessor—when I was 22, and he was surprised by my intense interest in the company. Two years later he took me on for an internship. The office I was put to work in was the office of his father, Monsieur Bonte Sr, who was on holiday at the time. It is the office I occupy now, so it was a symbolic moment. 

Are there certain dates connected to the company that the community celebrates?

In 1989, we celebrated a centenary of Saint James, even though the company is older than that [the Saint James spinning plant was founded around 1850 and carries on a textile tradition in this region that goes back to the Middle Ages]. On this occasion, which also marked the 100th birthday of Saint James’s founder, Monsieur Legallais, we made an enormous jumper—nearly nine meters high, and weighing 54 kilograms.

There are other companies that make nautical-inspired clothing. Why does Saint James stand out?

To start with, we are the oldest. We have an authenticity. Saint James used to equip the bags of sailors who left for a number of months to fish for cod; we provided them with jumpers, socks and hats for the journey. Our tagline is "Born of the Sea."

What are the most important qualities of Tricots Saint James products?

Their durability—but that is also their undoing, commercially speaking! Sometimes customers return a jumper to us after 20 years because they want us to repair it. We say it is like the second skin of the sailor.

Do you have many vintage examples in your own wardrobe?

My wardrobes are overflowing—I have the soul of a collector.

Originally these sweaters were made for men only. When did you start making a range specifically for women?

The naval jumper is unisex, and in fact women have always worn these jumpers. But in the 1980s we decided to adapt the clothing for a female market.

Do you have a favorite cultural icon famous for their love of the mariniere?

The most powerful for us is Picasso, in particular [because of] the photographs that Robert Doisneau took of him.

The nautical style is extremely trendy again. Who is behind this recent wave of popularity?

We began to notice this huge increase in popularity in 2009—in particular with the naval jumper in cotton. Designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Balmain and Jean Paul Gaultier contributed to this in 2010 with their own interpretations.

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