Designs from Petit Bateau's centenary panty capsule.

PARIS — When it comes to France’s most iconic heritage brands, Petit Bateau — in the children’s wear domain — counts among the national treasures. But the historic house also has another claim to fame in the legacy department, as the inventor of the underpant, or the culotte.

One hundred years ago, explained Patrick Pergament, the brand’s chief executive officer, Etienne Valton — as one of three heirs to Valton & Sons, a respected knitter based in Troyes in northern France — snipped the legs off the traditional long-john undergarment to create what the brand claims was the first incarnation of the modern underpant. Valton, a shrewd entrepreneur, was also the one who dreamed up, and trademarked, the brand’s Petit Bateau moniker, inspired by a popular French lullaby, “Maman, les P’tits Bateaux.”

An instant success, the Petit Bateau children’s panty became the house’s hero product, with some 30 million of them sold between 1921 and 1930. “With people paying increasing attention to hygiene,” it literally offered a fresh alternative to the woolen undergarments of the time, said Pergament. “The real story started with the panties; that’s how the business took off. It was such a revolution,” continued the executive, adding that its invention also chimed with this “very special time in history,” between the two world wars, with a palpable taste for freedom in the air. “Women were cutting their hair, with the whole garçonne movement; men were shaving their beards, with the invention of the Gillette razor…. There was Coco Chanel, of course, with her new dress. People were trying to have more freedom.”

With some 4.7 million panties still produced yearly by the brand, Petit Bateau is paying homage with the launch in its stores on Feb. 7 of a capsule collection based on its archive panty designs, including the original model — boasting a simple almost square shape with a high waist, rather like today’s boxer short, though cut higher at the sides.

Designs from the Petit Bateau centenary capsule.

Designs from the Petit Bateau centenary capsule.  Courtesy

The house in January also launched an online competition inviting members of the public to create their own panty design working with a limited selection of elements. Selected by a panel including Schiaparelli’s Bertrand Guyon, French Elle’s Brune de Margerie and blogger Elsa Muse, who has also come up with her own design, six of the entries will go on sale in July, with the winners to receive vouchers to the value of 3,000 euros, plus a trip to the brand’s factory in Troyes.

It’s a characteristically fun initiative. But from a wider business perspective, the concept – combining the knowhow of the house’s historic manufacture with creativity — also fortifies the brand message as it looks to take on Asia.

Japan is the brand’s first market outside of France, but China represents one of the biggest future markets for Petit Bateau, according to Pergament, who expects Asia to become the brand’s leading market over the next five years. Since opening its first store in China two years ago, the brand now owns around 34 stores there, with a new store opening “roughly every 10 days,” he said.

Digital sales are also growing apace, with around 20 percent of sales generated on the brand’s web site, launched in 2006 and now operating in 17 markets. The company has also partnered with Amazon and Zalando.

This combination of heritage — especially of the French variety — and creativity “really speaks to the Asian customer,” said Pergament, explaining that with the recent focus on “innovation in style and design” and digital drive, the brand has more than doubled its sales in Japan over the past four years.

The company employs over 3,000 people, of which around 1,000 are based in France. The collections are designed in the Paris studio. Prototypes are then developed by a dedicated team of pattern makers in the historic Petit Bateau factory in Troyes, where 45 percent of the knitting and dyeing also takes place.

The rest happens in a Petit Bateau factory created in 1989 in Marrakech, which also produces 85 percent of the firm’s apparel, working with longstanding partner factories based in Morocco and Tunisia, respectively IKS since 1992 and TUNITEX since 1978.

For the remaining 15 percent, 12 percent is produced by WethicA-audited partners in Asia; 2 percent by partners in Europe, and 2 percent in Mauritius and Madagascar. Some 28 million garments are produced yearly, including 16 million undergarments, and 3.4 million T-shirts.

The house in recent years has experimented with more of a fashion push — Maison Kitsuné’s Gildas Loaëc and Masaya Kuroki were signed on as artistic directors of the men’s and women’s adult collections in 2012, but it was short-lived – but is now focusing on collaborations.

Namely, since partnering with the Hyères Festival in 2013, the winner of the event’s Première Vision Grand Jury Prize each year is invited to reinterpret signature Petit Bateau garments and codes. Vanessa Schindler’s capsule will launch on April 25 on the Petit Bateau e-shop and in a selection of Petit Bateau stores in France and worldwide. The capsule will also be on sale at the Villa Noailles from April 26 to 30, during the festival’s next edition.

But Petit Bateau is first and foremost a “timeless baby and children’s brand.”

Baby and kids’ wear generates 80 percent of sales, with the adult portion of the collection having been expanded due to popular demand. In the Nineties, said Pergament, it became popular for women to wear T-shirts in the same material as their baby’s clothes. But there was also a major influencer trigger when, in 1994, Karl Lagerfeld “unexpectedly” sent Claudia Schiffer down the runway dressed in a white Petit Bateau T-shirt worn under a Chanel tweed suit.

“It was not something we had discussed or anticipated, and from one day to the next, we saw in the store that the sizes 14, 16, 18 were selling [like hotcakes],” said Pergament. “So we expanded the T-shirt range, and added some other pieces….”

Expanding adult wear is not on the cards, he said, adding that keeping up with demand for the core kids’ business is already complex enough.

Part of Groupe Rocher’s portfolio since 1988, the brand does not disclose figures but annual sales are at over 300 million euros, Pergament said, “and we’re growing.” The store count will total around 500 by end of year.

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