Can you imagine Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, innovation and skills posing for the cover of the Sunday Times magazine wearing a bowler hat and an umbrella in defence of the British industry? Arnaud Montebourg, the man with the slightly communist title of Ministre du Redressement Productif, minister of Industrial renewal, did just so for Le Parisien Magazine in the French equivalent of the clichéd British outfit: an Armor.Lux stripy t-shirt.
In the accompanying editorial, Montebourg wears other products of the French fashion industry such as Caulaincourt shoes and a Bérengère Claire shirt. His acknowledged aim is to prove the French industry is still going strong, producing quality products, and to encourage his fellow citizens to buy things made in France.
The French industry can’t bounce back without exports, including clothing ones, which accounted for 7.2 billion euros in 2011. Armor.Lux, Saint James and Petit Bateau are three of the French brands succeeding in France and abroad thanks to their high-quality nautical style.
It’s therefore fitting that, even though Montebourg’s cover t-shirt was French, the styling decision was anything but, adopting the codes of what is perceived as French outside the borders, rather than what the French people really wear.
A recent staple of the French wardrobe, first used by la Marine (the Navy) the stripy t-shirt was popularized over the past century by designers such as Coco Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier. Fashion is one of France’s strongest soft powers, and the sailor jersey has become a symbol of Frenchness abroad. No French-inspired editorial is complete without it, and American magazine TIME used the item to cover its issue on The death of French culture.
The stripy t-shirt sells well because it sells the French way of life and the Gallic romanticism foreigners still buy into. Montebourg is not just wearing a t-shirt, he’s wearing the millions of tourists who come to Paris for the food and the philosophical conversations in cafés, for the nonchalant cigarette and l’amour libre. He’s wearing a garment which innovation, ignoring colour and cut versions, is stuck somewhere on a 1920s Deauville beach. Is this loop of heritage and cliché really what the French industry is condemned to?