During the Life Instyle trade show in Melbourne, Luc Lesenecal, CEO of Saint James since 2012, took advantage of the event to share his experience with his new distributor in Australia. For French people, no need to introduce the brand to you because almost everyone knows the marinières that Saint James has produced in Normandy since 1889 (read the article “How the French got their stripes”).
While talking with Luc Lesenecal, you quickly notice how much this man is attached to the Normandy region, to French know-how, and to products made in France. For this man with years of hands-on experience, exportation has become one of the main objectives of this prestigious company.
Bonjour Luc, you are the CEO of Saint James but there are also other shareholders?
Indeed, I am the CEO, however Saint James is managed by a shareholders made up of directors, so there are 6 operational directors who own a share of the company.
This is a brand from Normandy, and you yourself are from Normandy, are all the shareholders from the Normandy region?
Half of my shareholders are Breton (from Brittany), the other half Norman (from Normandy). Let me highlight one point about Brittany and Normandy. These neighbouring region have been engaged in a chauvinist battle for centuries especially around Mont Saint-Michel, which is definitely located in Normandy).
Saint James (watch out do not pronounce the s) is a village created by William the Conqueror that is located in Normandy in the Manche area close to Mont Saint-Michel, just on the border of Brittany.
Why did you decide to take over Saint-James? How does this brand resonate with you?
I worked for 24 years in the agrifood industry for another great company called Isigny Sainte-Mère. At Isigny, we developed a lot AOC* products and for me the marinière and the sailor pullover are to Saint James what butter and cream are to Isigny. Furthermore, they are also AOC* products.
Even though I was changing sectors, I knew I wanted to find myself in a company with the same values: a philosophy based on ancestral know-how. This is exemplified in Saint James by the Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant – A Living Heritage Company – and the history of a company founded in 1889.
*an AOC product has a strong identity and a typical character which give it added value. Appellation d’Originie Contrôlée which means “protected designation of origin” is the French certification granted to certain French geographical indications for wines, cheeses, butters, and other agricultural products, all under the auspices of the government.
Saint James has been manufacturing since 1889, however today with the global competition and globalisation I guess it’s a real challenge for a French company to continue to manufacture in France?
Yes it’s a challenge that my predecessors have defended, that I still defend however I have also strengthened this aspect of the company as for 5 years now we have employed around 30 new people which means that we really want to maintain the company in Normandy. Our savoir-faire is a human know-how. Each person who works with us in different roles has to undertake 18 months of training before being operational within the company. This is not something that can be relocated overnight. On the other hand, consumers have changed.
Over the past 10 years or so, consumers have new behaviours. We are here to tell consumers a beautiful story but what has changed is that the story is true and verifiable. It’s for this reason that 2 years ago we opened the company to the public for visits to verify that what we are saying is true, which it is given that there are 300 people working at Saint James.
And to answer your question more specifically, I would say that all our products including cotton and wool garments, the marinière, pullovers and jackets are made at Saint James but for almost 20 years now we have added a range called “chaîne et trame” like pants or shirts that are not made at Saint James because it is not part of our know-how. We haven’t relocated, we never did and we don’t know how to do it, however we subcontract this range through a few companies which use our materials (for example in the Mediterranean). The marinières and the pullovers manufactured at Saint James make up 75% of what we sell.
In the 5 years, since you arrived, how have you seen the brand change?
We did a lot of work whilst keeping the DNA of the brand. Our goal was to rejuvenate the products (like for example we changed the fit of the marinières that were a little baggy). We do following fashion trends even if we are not “fashionable” as such. The most important was also to accompany the young generation without losing our main loyal clients who are over the age of 50.
The rejuvenation of the brand is also being achieved through collaborations with other French brands, could you tell us a bit more?
Yes we have been involved in several collaborations. We started with a young entrepreneur who started his business called “Le Slip Français” in 2012 which specialises in underwear made in France. Together we developed a marinière and a pullover in collaboration with both of our designers give some of our products amore youthful touch. This works pretty well because these collaborations are renewed each year with new creations.
Then, we want to be more present in the city so we did capsule collections with Marie Marot, a brand specialised in shirts. In this collaboration we also brought together our different skills. We had a beautiful collaboration two years ago with Claudie Pierlot as well. Today young working women now dress more often in a casual chic way, and not only on casual Friday. The Saint James brand is casual chic so it is perfect for the workplace.
We can now find Saint James in Australia with a desire to expand across Asia-Pacific, how long has this been the case?
Actually Saint James has always exported and we even started quite early in capturing the Japanese market where we have been present for 30 years. Today, exports represent 40% of our activity. Globally one third in Canada and North America, one third in Europe of course and one third in Asia such as Japan, Korea and more recently China.
In Australia, we had a multi-brand sales outlet 10 years ago and noticing that the sales were doing well, we thought it would be good top recruit a distributor. We have now been working with Thibaut Guigues for few months now. The Australian market is typified by the greater presence of multi-brands boutiques compared to other European countries and has a lifestyle category that suits us perfectly.
Could you imagine collaboration with an Australian brand in the long term?
Why not. It has to be with a brand who has a strong and deep identity. Our collaborations in France are mainly with companies sharing our same values and these values are universal therefore we definitely can find companies in Australia or a talented stylist who wants to reinterpret our Saint James products in an Australian way. We are completely open to this.
Luc, I coming back to your story, during your journey at Saint James, what has been your biggest challenge? Moving from the agrifood industry to retail, it’s a big jump?
Very much so. I didn’t experience a big change in the company philosophy, so it was quite easy to adapt. The way of working was very similar compared to Isigny. When you defend products of quality and made with know-how, it’s so much easier.
However the challenge was to take over from a CEO who spent all his life and career at Saint James. Obviously he left his mark. I had to prove that it was possible to modernise the brand while keeping the DNA and open the company.
I opened the company to the Patrimoine Vivant, by building a 300m2 boutique in the heart of Saint James; opening the atelier to the public and positioning ourselves with a strong regional identity. Before seeking to enter new markets overseas, you have to be strong in our own countryyou’re your own region. It’s quite a challenge that I gave myself: it’s not because there is a new CEO that the basics of the brand are not respected even if I often say to my major business partner that things don’t move fast enough. Often some find it too fast and I guess this proves we are going at the right pace.
We often say that French people that we have a certain je ne sais quoi. Does Saint James contribute to finding the je ne sais quoi and what is the je ne sais quoi at Saint James?
The je ne sais quoi is elegance and comfort of clothing. We have a good day when we feel good in the clothes we are wearing, when we can dress in casual chic with a comfortable product. I think the je ne sais quoi of Saint James is the comfort.
Living in Granville close to the sea makes me realise that I’m lucky enough to drive along the sea every morning and that gives me inspiration. I need to feel the sea, to see the sea and Saint James is born from the sea and has this same state of mind.
A lot of French people try their luck in Australia, starting a new business, what advice would you give to a French person who wants to launch his/her brand overseas?
The best advice I can give is to sell a difference. Let’s take two examples. 1. You have a phenomenon that is growing in France and worldwide that we call fast fashion. One of the pioneers of this is Zara. Zara brought a difference with its logistics and the ability to reproduce successful model quickly. It was new, it was a revolution. 2. We are a premium brand that brings a qualitative difference. Everything in between unfortunately disappears and we see this because there is no difference.
Bring a product or positioning that is different to the market. Don’t be discouraged, export is hard work. With good products you have to wait for 3 years before a good return.