Every spring, Paris style changes with the sun. But a few essentials appear between the strawberries and the asparagus. You can always choose between espadrilles and ballerines. But, if you are French, you will want to show your stripes—and some should come in the form of a marinière.
The true French marinière (sailor shirt) hails from the seacoast of Brittany. Thanks to a decree from 1858, a law in the national navy regulates its stripes. Well before that, on both sides of the English Channel, such stripes were a symbol of sailors and national pride. It was England’s Queen Victoria who launched them into fashion—by dressing her children in replica naval uniforms. During the Belle Epoque, their associations with sun and sea exploded. Turning up on everything from awnings to swimwear, they became the symbol of summer and its holidays.
The first to capitalize on this for fashion was Coco Chanel. On the eve of World War I, at her seaside shop in Deauville, she made the seafaring shirt into a feminine classic. But its modern beneficiary is Jean Paul Gaultier.
JPG is less inspired by Chanel than by his childhood. “Of course, I saw the pull marin on everyone: Chanel, Picasso, Bridget Bardot. But as a child, my grandmother used to dress me in one, so what it really evokes for me is nostalgia. I wore it even before my first collection in 1976 and, now, I almost wear it like a uniform.”
Gaultier loves the shirt’s enduring role as a gay symbol. “For me, that goes back to seeing the movie Querelle, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film of a novel by Jean Genet. What attracts me in its images is all their sailor-macho-gay iconography. After seeing that, I really wore those stripes everywhere.”
Gaultier applies them to every form of design. “I’ve used them for couture, I’ve used them for couches, I’ve used them for cars and, now, I’ve put them on the Diet Coke bottle!” Gaultier’s recent redesign of Diet Coke premiered with a lavish launch at the Crazy Horse cabaret.
In Paris style terms, Gaultier may be the king of stripes. But Sonia Rykiel is definitely queen. When she began designing 50 years ago, her first sweaters earned her a nickname: the queen of knit. But it was her signature colored stripes that kept the knitwear selling. So, Rykiel became la reine de la rayure (queen of the stripe). There were Rykiel stripes on Diet Coke three years ago.
St.-Germain-des-Prés’s grande dame still creates. Her daughter Nathalie now directs the fashion house. But when the main boutique reopened four years back, French fashion’s finest presented a special défilé. It was a surprise for Sonia, in which couture’s biggest names created their versions of the “Rykiel woman.”
If your search is for simpler stripes in Paris, there are two companies locals love. One is Saint James, with stores in the 6th, 7th and 8th. Founded in 1889, this company got famous selling “real” marinières and it followed the classic from seafront to fashion. Your other choice is the charming Petit Bateau, which, every year, bills its marinière as “le must-have.” Both companies do a roaring online business.
Honorable mention (especially for men) goes to the English designer Paul Smith. Sir Paul has three elegant shops in Paris and, like Rykiel, he made his name with stripes. His take on le style anglais is absolutely worshipped here and has made Smith a Lagerfeld-like celebrity. During last Fashion Week, he even got his own documentary, Paul Smith: Gentleman Designer, on Arte.
You’ll find plenty of other stripes but, for Parisians, these are the fetish sites. Dip into their stock and you’ll see why stripes are so seductive. As Jean Paul Gaultier says, “What would summer be without them?”
Thanks to Loïc Prigent, the master of fashion films, you can see Sonia Rykiel’s surprise party yourself. Prigent has created a series called Le Jour d’avant (The Day Before), in which he follows the frantic 48 hours before a collection’s debut. Gaultier and Rykiel both appear in volume one, a box of four films that also follow Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi and Proenza Schouler.
Editor’s note: Even if you aren’t in Paris or at the seaside, you can buy the stripes you need to be au courant. Basic French has the perfect striped boat-neck shirt made in Brittany, and you can order it today. GG2P members receive 25 percent off their first order!