The Mont Saint Michel : A Breton history
For history-geography buffs, Mont Saint Michel is the invincible fortress that resisted the English during the Hundred Years' War. For French workwear enthusiasts, it is rather a mythical brand founded at the beginning of the last century, which dressed for more than half a century, workers, peasants and farmers in Brittany. After falling into disuse at the end of the 1970s, the brand was bought in 1998 by Alexandre Milan, who brought it modernity and freshness, while respecting its heritage. A look back at a 100% Breton success story.
BY ERIC MAGGIORI (text from AVANT magazine published on 2021)
Alexandre Milan knows all about fabric. Like Obelix, he "fell into it when he was little". And for good reason, his great-grandmother, Caroline Lesaffre, founded a knitting factory in 1919: Les Tricotages de l'Aa. The goal? To produce knitted goods, but also to give work to women who had lost husbands and brothers during the First World War. Knitting runs in my veins, it's a family story," says Alexandre Milan. At a very young age, my parents taught me knitting and textile techniques, wool, cotton, spinning, knitting, dyeing, tailoring, styling." So the meeting was logical. It was only a matter of time. In 1998, Alexandre realized that a famous Breton brand, whose name and reputation had rocked his childhood, was in a state of dormancy. It was Mont St Michel. The brand, which for decades dressed the workers of Brittany, went bankrupt in 1979. Driven by nostalgia and the desire to give it back its letters of nobility, Alexandre decided to dust off the stocks and relaunch the production. It was a bit of a Proust's madeleine version of workwear," he explains. I wanted these strong clothes, evocative of the work of craftsmen and the countryside. This label, which was very much rooted in its region, had created its own legend and that was very valuable to me.
From Saint-James to Pontorson, the beginnings of the firm
Alexandre Milan speaks the truth. For nearly a century, Le Mont St Michel has built a legend and a reputation. And this beautiful story began nearly 150 years ago, in a small Norman town. On November 17, 1872, Dominique Ariès, a peddler from a family of ragpickers, and his wife, Amante Thureaux, also a merchant, gave birth to their first child, Henri Ariès. Two years later, in December 1873, the couple welcomed a second child, Louis François. At the very end of the 19th century, the whole family moved to Pontorson, a village of about 3000 souls. It is here that the two brothers will soon lay the first stones of their vast building.
Before that, Henri and Louis lived a very normal life: they went to school, got married in their early twenties, and each had their first child in 1904: a little Yvonne for Henri, and a little Louis... for Louis. With their family established, Henri and Louis decided to join forces for an ambitious professional project. And so, in 1913 (1906 according to some archives of the time, the mystery remains, N.D.L.R.), they founded, on the road to Avranches in Pontorson, a textile clothing factory: the Ariès Establishments. And with it, a brand of work clothes, "Le Mont St Michel". The logo was found: the silhouette of the famous Mont, located nearby. With this brand, the idea of Henri and Louis Ariès is simple: to dress the workers, farmers and peasants of Brittany. Quite a program.
Giant advertisements on the walls
During its first years of existence, the Le Mont St Michel brand tried to make a name for itself locally, by selling its products to workers in the surrounding communes, and then in the region. The beginning of their activity was nevertheless slightly slowed down by the First World War. But as soon as the war was over, Henri and Louis Ariès got back to work, and activated a first lever that would quickly become the strength of their brand: giant advertisements painted on walls. And not just any walls: house gables selected for their visibility, so as to catch the eye... of motorists. The strategy was innovative: no workwear company had ever had the idea of targeting drivers and passengers before. Even today, many Breton facades still have these ads. "It is absolutely amazing the number of remnants that can still be found on the walls," explains Philippe Célérier, founder of the website Les Murs Peints.
At the beginning of the 1920s, that's it: thanks to the quality of its clothes, robust and durable, and to its communication strategy, the brand knows a growing success with the Breton and Norman workers. It relies on simple products: the three-pocket jacket in black or blue moleskin, the blouse, the corduroy pants from Amiens, the vest, or the overalls. In the West of France, everyone, or almost everyone, dresses in Mont St Michel, and not only to work. At an exhibition at the Museum of Brittany in 2010, a donor brought a black moleskin work jacket that belonged to his grandfather. "My grandfather usually wore it on Sundays, or to go to the city," he said. Faced with the demand, the garment factory Le Mont St Michel-Ariès had to adapt: to produce more, it moved part of its production to Rennes, to 58 and 60 rue de l'Alma. "The workshop on rue de l'Alma produced mainly jackets and blouses, and at that time employed only a dozen people," says a historian from the Academy of Rennes. Everything was in place for success, but the success story was to come to a halt. On February 19, 1925, Louis died at the age of 51.
The new factory on rue Marie Rouault, then the SARL
"Louis is dead, long live Louis!" to quote the traditional maxim proclaimed at the advent of a new monarch in France. It is indeed Louis Victor Amand Ariès, the son, who takes over from his father at the head of the company, alongside his uncle. The first action of the new team was to build a new clothing factory, a few hundred meters from the workshop on rue de l'Alma, at 13-17 rue Marie Rouault. It includes "two buildings, one for workshops, stores and offices, the second for a janitor's office", as indicated in the archives of the cultural heritage of the Brittany region.
And while construction was underway, Henri Ariès and his nephew also decided to create a limited liability company for the Le Mont St Michel brand. A strong sign, which symbolically marks the end of a first chapter, that of the Ariès Establishments, and which opens a new one, where Le Mont St Michel workwear is now at the center of the project. Curiosity: the company's incorporation deed tells us that Henri and Louis Ariès were joined by a certain Henri Ingret, a 28 year old salesman from Rennes, who "brought to the company the sum of 19,000 francs in cash". Two years later, in September 1931, the SARL Ariès et Compagnie was dissolved and replaced by the Société anonyme des vêtements " Le Mont St Michel ". As if to reaffirm that Le Mont St Michel, strengthened by its success, now had full powers.
Seamstresses, robustness and local product
But just when it seemed that nothing could hinder the brand's growth, another thunderclap sounded in a serene sky. On July 15, 1932, during a trip to Paris, Louis Ariès, the second in line, tragically died at the age of 28. Henri Ariès, who had lost his brother and nephew in the space of seven years, remained alone at the head of the company. However, he knew that his brand was strong, that it dominated the market and that it was extremely popular. And in the years that followed, with a brand new factory running at full capacity, the brand's business and sales continued to grow. "In the years following the construction of the factory, the company grew to about 50 employees, and also employed many home-based seamstresses," says our historian. Guy Cosnard, a Breton with a passion for history, remembers an anecdote about these seamstresses: "They came with wheelbarrows to get the overalls to sew the buttons at home, with electricity or oil lamps.
At the dawn of World War II, Le Mont St Michel became the undisputed leader in workwear in all of Western France. The brand built its reputation on the robustness of its products, on the one hand, but also by becoming the standard-bearer of a certain Brittany, that of work and the fields. The Bretons were proud to wear Mont St Michel, because it was a pure product of their country," explains Frédéric Marc-Marion, a French clothing dealer. The products were very classic: simple jackets, simple overalls, simple pants. There was no frills, and that's what the Bretons liked about it: it was clothing that looked like them." This local side is also highlighted on the advertisements of the time: "In Rennes, your capital, is manufactured your work clothes. Your neighbor wears it. Why not... you?" reads an ad from the 1940s.
After the advertisement on the walls, the advertising vans
1947 marked a new turning point in the history of the company. Henri Ariès, the founding father of Mont St Michel, died in Rennes at the age of 75. His son from a second marriage, Robert, 26 years old, took over the reins of the company.
Rodeo, women's ready-to-wear and bankruptcy
But things started to go wrong in the following decade. The French workwear industry was hit hard by the modernization of the agricultural sector after the Second World War, as well as the decrease in the number of farmers in France. While there were 3.6 million farmers in 1929, there were only 1.9 million in the early 1960s. Like all of its sector, Le Mont St Michel saw its sales of work clothes decrease and had to try to reinvent itself. A difficult challenge, which Robert tried to meet by changing the image of his brand. To do so, he was inspired by American culture, at a time when Wrangler, Lee and Levi's jeans were very popular in the United States, but had not yet invaded the French market, at least not as a "fashion product. So, inspired by the aura of American actors John Wayne, James Dean or Marlon Brando, Le Mont St Michel put aside its "local" character, and started producing denim and blue jeans. And since it was necessary to play the American style game to the fullest, Robert Ariès named this new line "Arie's", and drew on his advertisements French-style cowboys, hat on the head and guitar in hand. Always an innovator. In 1963, a new turn was taken with the launch of a ready-to-wear line for women, under the name "Ariès Créations".
Although these changes of direction gave the company a new impetus, success was not really forthcoming. A long agony began for Le Mont St Michel, swept away by the wave of the decline in French spending on clothing (9.6% in 1959, 7.3% in 1974). "A real plan to demolish the clothing industry in France was orchestrated. The Ariès Company is a new example," said Louis Avoine, secretary of the CGT. In May 1977, Robert Ariès had no choice but to give up. After 71 years of existence, Le Mont St Michel had to file for bankruptcy. Two years followed in which the company tried to do miracles to survive. In vain. The debts were too great, and in July 1979, the Pontorson and Rennes factories closed down, leading to the dismissal of 279 workers. On December 10 of the same year, the company Le Mont St Michel was declared bankrupt. The last chapter of this first great book, whose epilogue is the death of Robert Ariès, on October 19, 1984.
A rebirth in two stages
But for Le Mont St Michel, there is, fortunately, a continuation to this story. A second volume. A second life. And this one is articulated in two main axes. First, a first rebirth thanks to... collectors. From the beginning of the 1990's, the first buyers were interested in old French work clothes. These buyers were French, but also English and Japanese. And it is clear that, among the hundreds of antique French workwear brands, Le Mont St Michel, because of its image, stands out. My customers, most of whom are Japanese, really like this brand," says Frédéric Marc-Marion. You should know that Le Mont St Michel is the most visited French monument by the Japanese after the Eiffel Tower. I think this has clearly contributed to the brand's reputation among the Japanese. This notoriety continues to this day, and you only have to survey the managers of the biggest French vintage stores in Japan to be sure. "I love Le Mont St Michel clothes from the 1940s and 1950s: good fabrics, good stitching and good shapes," says Nao, the founder of JamClothing. I love the old Le Mont St Michel products, they are real classics," says Hiroshi of Mindbenders & Classics. This brand is one of the most popular in Japan.
Then, in 1998, the second rebirth, more concrete this time: the purchase of the brand by Alexandre Milan. It was then necessary to start almost from scratch, to modernize the label, while respecting its DNA. I began by reconstituting a vast collection of our label's archives," explains Alexandre Milan. We revived lost fabrics, found the weavers and the right dye formulas to guarantee perfect solidity. Then we reworked shapes and patterns, and adapted the tailoring of the clothes to our time, because, yes, people are taller today! The challenge is a big one, because we have to recreate a brand that is in tune with the times, without disappointing "the fans. Alexandre, again: "Le Mont St Michel clothes were very well made. Since I took over the brand, we have been surprised to rediscover old knowledge, to discover cutting and finishing details that are not really used today. The machines with offset arms, the double needles... We had to put everything back together, and I loved it. In a nod to his dual heritage, Alexandre takes the brand's original label, and replaces the words "Warranty Signature: Ariès" with "Warranty Signature: AA."
More than twenty years after its rebirth, Le Mont St Michel is doing wonderfully well. The brand, which has diversified widely but continues to produce the famous moleskin overalls, has found a new audience. In France, but also internationally, since it is sold in fifteen countries. Our international strength is our local roots," says Alexandre Milan. The people who wear our clothes are the soul of the brand and give it its legitimacy. Often, what we have in front of us no longer surprises us, but has a lot of value for a person abroad." And more than 110 years after the first stone was laid by the Ariès brothers, what does the future hold for Le Mont St Michel? The final word for Alexandre: "Is slowing down the tempo a step backwards? No. But it allows us to remember, and to take the time to build a future rich in our accumulated culture. I certainly believe in progress through the combination of ancient and current knowledge. Then, perhaps our future will be our reinvented past."
- All comments collected by Eric Maggiori, unless otherwise stated.