• Clothes from Petit Bateau

Style

Earning their stripes

Carole Caufman, director of style at Petit Bateau, on the ethos of one of France’s most famous clothing brands

Words: Clare Finney

If we’re honest—and here at the Journal we are—we had never really given much thought to the presence in Marylebone of Petit Bateau. It just blends in; hidden in plain sight. Since its opening, it has felt as much a part of the high street as parking restrictions, Sunday brunch and the use of the expression ‘village feel’.

Glance inside one of the local cafes on a midweek morning, and you’ll see the brand’s stamp everywhere: that bold blue stripe adorning every boy, girl, baby and increasingly, their parents. Yet behind the brand’s ubiquity is a story worth telling.

Petit Bateau is 122 years old, established in 1893 by Pierre Valton in the French town of Troyes. What started out small was forced to expand rapidly with the onset of World War I, in which Valton’s company was charged with keeping French troops in pants.

Post-war, it launched its first classic t-shirt—a staple which has barely changed in the intervening decades—but it was 1918, when Pierre took some scissors to his kids’ underwear, that was the real breakthrough.

A revolutionary move
At that time, most children were still in long johns: stiff, itchy and too long for little legs. Cutting off the ends and allowing them to run freely proved revolutionary. In 1920, when the Valtons decided to patent their invention (by now more sophisticated in design), legend has it Pierre heard his son singing a song that summed up their ethos perfectly: the classic French nursery rhyme Maman, les Petits Bateaux—and their iconic marionette advertising campaign was born.

It was one of the most successful advertising campaigns of the 20th century. Yet looking back, they barely needed it. From 1893 through to the present day, the quality of its fabric, cut and fit has been beyond compare.

Success bred more success, the iconic stripe was created, and Petit Bateau became the Marks & Spencer of Gallic children’s underwear. Today, this ‘millerias stripe’—composed of two knitted threads in different colours to create 1,000 lines per square metre—is a hallmark of French national identity.

This brings us to the present day and the brand’s softly spoken style director, Carole Caufman. “Every mummy tells their child ‘once upon a time’ stories,” she explains. “At Petit Bateau, our ‘once upon a time’ tale is actually real. Open up the book and there is our DNA. This is not about marketing.”

Practical spirit
So particular are the finishes involved in creating a Petit Bateau garment, the company runs its own sewing school, allowing the more experienced women (“some of our workers have been with us for 40 years,” whistles Carole) to pass on their skills to the younger generation. This is no mere formality: the education takes most new seamstresses at least five years.

Carole, too, is still learning: not cocotte stiches and picot loops, but the broader principles that have helped Petit Bateau endure across three centuries. “It is the practical spirit—the simple way of life,” she explains. “I’m 62. I have worked in fashion all my life but the first time I came to the factory here, I fell in love. I’ve learnt many special things here: about knit, about fashion, and about our DNA.”

Asked why she thinks the brand has endured, she says “it is like marriage. Why does a wife stay with her husband? I think it is their roots together, their passion, his qualities.” She’s been at Petit Bateau for more than five years. Of this particular amour, she says the qualities are knit, first and foremost, “then the stripes, and the colours. Make your colours, you make your brand,” she continues. “For Chanel, it is white and black. For us it is blue, bright red, Doré yellow and cerise.”

The stripe, our spirit
“My earliest memory of Petit Bateau was of my son wearing it,” smiles Carole. “And my daughter, 38 now, said she needed two, a red and a blue t-shirt, because she couldn’t decide.” In 2012, Carole recreated the cut and pattern of the garment her son wore as a baby. “We made it in exactly the same pattern, but in different colours,” she recalls. “We had customers come in and say, ‘Ahhhh! It is what I wore when I was young!’”

These days, customers don’t need to live vicariously through their kids to enjoy Petit Bateau. Since 1994, when Karl Lagerfeld sent Claudia Schiffer down the catwalk wearing a kids’ Petit Bateau shirt under a Chanel outfit, the brand has produced adult clothing—even collaborating with young designers discovered through the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography.

“I’m always surprised when we give Petit Bateau to a new, young designer, the imagination they bring to it,” admires Carole. “I trust Petit Bateau will go on for another 1,000 years.”

The stripe has long been a part of French sartorial culture. It is the fisherman’s garb, the uniform of workers, the outfit of artists, the Riviera and the Revolution, Carole explains. “In France we have the saying, ‘It is like Proust’s madeleine.’

The stripe echoes. It’s fashionable now, because there are so many stripes going on in the world,” she continues, “but Petit Bateau never forgets the stripe. It is part of us. We don’t know what will happen in two years, between us designing a new collection and it coming out, but the stripe is our spirit and so we must follow it.”