Eleanor O’Neill from STUDY 34 interviews our Director, Rachel Walker about all things Breton!
EON: What are the essential pieces that make up your wardrobe? I suspect a Breton stripe is in there…
RW: I think the Breton stripe is an iconic piece. It really doesn’t matter how old you are (our customers are so varied, they go from 18 to 75), the Breton stripe is a classic and it’s been in everybody’s wardrobe for years. It’s dead boring but of course jeans are another essential. I just think a pair of jeans goes with everything and anything.
My thing is shoes and handbags! I’ve got a huge array of shoes… I think if you’ve got a nice pair of shoes, a nice pair of jeans and your white t-shirt or a Breton top it’s just an easy casual look.
EON: Apart from being drawn to a garments style, what sort of information do you look at that would make you want to buy something?
RW: To be honest it’s really down to style, and quality is important too (though I will sometimes buy something just because I love it). I always say though ‘you pay for what you get’, so if you buy something that’s fairly cheap, it just isn’t going to last long.
So from a sustainability stand point, if you’re buying something that’s of good quality it’s going to last longer and that is better. I don’t know about you but if I wear something a few times and then I feel scruffy in it, I then just don’t want to wear it anymore.
EON: Do you customers ever ask you about the provenance of your products, or do they generally just inquire about size and fit?
RW: It’s a little bit of both really. Of course there is a big story behind the original Breton shirt and that when French soldiers fell overboard, they could be identified by the number of stripes they had on their shirt.
Our shirts are the original square cut (not tailored in anyway and are unisex) so they fit everybody really. That’s the first thing people often ask.
The second is about quality and where the product is made. All the typical high street department stores tend to make everything in the Far East and so by manufacturing in Portugal in smallish runs, we have a unique selling point. Once we sell out of a line, we don’t have any more and I think it’s quite nice to know that not everybody’s going to have your shirt. Once we’re out we’re out, and we’ll bring a new colour in to replace it.
EON: What do you think makes the Breton shirt such a classic style for all ages?
RW: It’s easy to wear and it goes with everything in your wardrobe – you can just shove it on with most things! But it’s also the history behind it. It’s strongly associated with people like James Dean, Coco Channel, Picasso etc. and in turn is frequently worn by celebrities today.
Our customers wear them for a whole range of events. We sell them to people who sail, to chandlers and to people who are going on holiday and want to take them to the beach or our younger customers want to take them to festivals and wear them with shorts and wellies – so they appeal to a huge range of customers.
If you’re wearing a Breton shirt you’re not automatically labelled as having a certain style, it’s one of those things you can wear whatever style you follow.
My husband started the Breton shirt company about 25 years ago and we still have customers from that beginning era calling us saying that their shirt’s literally just worn out and they want to order another one. It just shows you people still want them in their wardrobes when they’re still ordering them 25 years on.
EON: I’m assuming that the classic blue and white combination is the best seller, if you exclude that one, what is the most popular colour combination?
RW: It’s the ecru rouge (cream/red) and then The Nautique, which is the reverse of the original – so navy with an ecru stripe as opposed to the other way round. Along with the original, they are the three top sellers.
EON: Your brand uses 100% organic cotton, how long has that been the case?
RW: Since July 2015, when we started our own brand. Our ‘Club de Mer’ shirts are all made with organic cotton.
Being Organic adds to the authenticity of the shirt and builds on this as all the components and manufacturing support a small community of family owned businesses on the Atlantic Coast of Portugal.
EON: How much do trends affect your sales, when you sell such a timeless item?
RW: In terms of the volumes of sales they’ll definitely go up when someone like Kate Middleton wears a Picasso shirt or something but otherwise trends don’t really affect us that much – people look for Breton shirts all year round!
EON: Have you stayed with the same factory since you started and how easy is it to maintain that relationship?
RW: It’s a family run business in Portugal and they are just lovely people. We’ve got a great relationship with them. I got out probably three times a year and the last time I was out we did a big factory tour. Our shirts are actually made across three factories, so they took us to see how our fabric was dyed, dried and spun on to the big roles. How the templates are made, how the pieces are cut out and hand finished and hand stitched then packed. They do everything for us and we’ve been with them since the beginning.
EON: What you’ve described there, that journey from raw material to end product, is that something you think your customers would be interested in?
RW: Yes, when we were out there, in September, we had a photographer with us and they documented the process. I think it is of interest to people, I like a story and I think most people do!
EON: I love discovering small brands who are doing things incredibly well and using traditional skills to execute a particular product that is really high quality and bring it to market. What do you find exciting about the fashion industry today?
RW: I think there are a lot of conceptual ideas shown at London or New York Fashion Week, but the designs are not necessarily something that you or I would wear in our daily lives and they’re kind of untouchable to the general public. What I think is really quite exciting is people like me, or someone who runs a small brand, being able to interpret those ideas into more affordable and accessible pieces of clothing for everyone. That’s an exciting thing.