Meet Benjamin Auzimour, Managing Director At Saint James

 Credit: George Elder Photography

Credit: George Elder Photography

Saint James has quite the legacy, bringing us our beloved breton stripes and pioneering slow fashion. The history of the brand is woven into the story of the French countryside itself—from high quality wool and sweaters for fisherman, to navy uniforms and nautical style. Fast forward to the 21st century and Saint James is still known for the iconic design established in those early days. 

We sat down with the company’s United States Managing Director, Benjamin Auzimour, to hear about Saint James’ unique history, the company’s commitment to its employees, and how the iconic Breton stripes have found their way around the world.

The business still operates out of Saint-James, a small village of 3,000 in north western France and employs 1/10th of the town’s population. We’d love to hear about your relationship with this community and the evolution of a town becoming a brand. Tell us the story of Saint James and what the historic company stands for today.

The name Saint James dates from the year 1067, when William The Conqueror founded the village of Saint-James in Normandy, France. Over the centuries that followed, the village’s families built a strong reputation around their wool-knitting expertise, as a lot of a lot of local fishermen needed some tightly-knit, warm, long sweaters that would protect them against the elements when fishing for cod.

Thanks to Medieval merchants who were linking manufacturers to their remote markets, Saint-James’ reputation grew fast, until 1858 when the French Government ordered that the French navy’s uniforms follow a precise striped pattern. Saint-James’ families got together under the leadership of the founder of what would become the Saint James company to become a supplier for the French Navy, and when Coco Chanel started vacationing in Normandy in the 1910s and brought Nautical fashion to Paris, our fate as the original provider of the Breton stripes was sealed.

Today, our mission is simple. Born from the sea, we inherited centuries of:

  • Savoir-faire and knowledge of wool-handling, and then cotton;
  • Anchoring in a region of France, the bay of Mont Saint-Michel, where most of us were born and that we haven’t left since the year 1067 when the village of Saint James was founded;
  • Work at the service of seamen and women

As our company is made up of the value of its women and men, our mission today is to defend, perfect and transmit that living legacy, which translates into economic prosperity and local jobs.  

Our mission today is to defend, perfect and transmit our living legacy, which translates into economic prosperity and local jobs.  

In that history is a deep commitment to producing only the highest quality clothing. What does slow fashion mean to you?

Like Moliere’s character Mr. Jourdain who does poetry without realizing it, we’ve been doing “slow fashion” since our inception without thinking it would become an almost political statement! Simply because we’re villagers—often farmers—and we don’t think of clothing as disposable. When we gift Saint James, we give a symbol of durable relationships, of respect of the time that it takes to do something we can be proud of.

We believe that fashion has a huge responsibility toward the environment and toward people who contribute to making the garments we wear. Clothes have become too much of a disposable commodity because of a lack of information on the damage such a conception does to the Earth and to people. As a part of the fashion world, it is our duty to do some soul searching, starting with people who work at Saint-James: are they finding fulfillment in what they do, are they respected, and do we inform our customers enough on who made their clothes?

It is our duty to do some soul searching, starting with people who work at Saint-James: are they finding fulfillment in what they do, are they respected, and do we inform our customers enough on who made their clothes?

Could you share a little bit about wool? One of our oldest textiles, what impact does sheep herding have on the environment and how sustainable of a material is it for manufacturing?

Sheep herding has a low impact on the environment, only if done responsibly, which means giving sheep the space they need without spreading pesticides where they live. This creates a virtuous circle where sheep are healthier with a stronger immune system that protects them against parasites and produce better quality wool. There’s no denying, however, that sheep-herding takes a lot of water, which is maybe the part where the least progress can still be made to reduce the footprint of that practice.

Wool, per se, is pretty sustainable—it renews itself—as long as the fabric is treated responsibly. The dying process is easier with wool than with the vast majority of other fibers, as its structure enables the dye to penetrate the fiber faster and in a more permanent way. As a result, the dying process is more much more gentle.

Responsible production isn’t just about the materials you use but also the people you employ.  Saint James is committed to the very best employee experience. Tell us more about your relationship to your workforce, any innovative management practices, as well as how you’re working hard to keep employees happy.

As a French company, the law sets an already demanding baseline for us, as far as employee rights. Moreover, Saint James always had a culture of commitment to its employees’ welfare and involvement in decisions. We innovated in the 80s by starting working with autonomous teams of 8 people where everyone can do all tasks, instead of repeating the same movement all day long. We can easily compare our nautical company to a ship’s crew, where absolutely everyone matters, and where there’s a de facto solidarity. There’s no cult of the personality of managers, decisions are often made in the most democratic way—which sometimes leads to slower processes, but also to greater sense of belonging, which in the long run ensures the company’s durability.

We can easily compare our nautical company to a ship’s crew, where absolutely everyone matters, and where there’s a de facto solidarity.

When you know that the points of debate in the workforce concern the music we’re playing in the workshop, it means everyone is happy. But more than anything, it is the palpable pride in what they do and in belonging to an organization that defends and promotes their skills and know-how that’s the best proof of Saint James being a great workplace.