The “Je Ne Sais Quoi” of 4 Iconic French Pieces

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That French women are effortlessly stylish isn’t a new idea to anyone, but as our Paris-born model Rebecca Dayan (that’s her, above) told us, it’s not entirely true. That lived-in dishabille is no accident—it’s basically heirloom style that’s passed down from grandmothers to moms to daughters. And our latest collaboration with Sézane wouldn’t be complete without four of those timeless styles that each generation’s lived in. But how’d these pieces reach icon status? And how are we wearing them now? To learn about their origins, we stopped by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute collection (a massive archive of clothes from throughout history) and then strolled over to our photo shoot in Central Park to find out more.

The Wool Coat

Where it started: The button-up coat was a status symbol in the French royal court—Louis XIII wore his knee-length and decorated with velvet and gold-braid trim. Over time, coats became simpler and more everyday (the Met’s archive illustrates the evolution).

How we’re doing it: as a toss-over-anything cape, retro-shrunken with a detachable faux-fur collar.

See an OG wear it: French actor Henri Serre in Jules et Jim. Whether he’s biking, running through a museum or killing time in a park, he’s usually in an impressive coat of some sort.

Other outer layers we love: Doug Aitken’s home in Venice Beach (every surface makes sound!), Charles Fréger’s photographs of mythical costumes.

Shop the Igor Cape.

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The Striped Shirt

Where it started: It has maritime beginnings, as a form of anticamouflage. French sailors wore stripes to stand out in the waves in case they fell overboard. The long-sleeve uniform, called a marinière, had a hold on designer Coco Chanel, whose nautical 1917 collection introduced stripes to the masses. Parisian filmmakers appreciated the graphic style, and by the late 1950s, stripes were a fixture in new-wave films.

How we’re doing it: both long and short sleeves with a little high-school French embroidered on the pocket. 

See an OG wear it: Pablo Picasso, who, much like our collaboration, had a long-sleeve and a short-sleeve version.

Other stripes we love: Bridget Riley’s art, Dan Flavin’s lights, Nick Mauss’s ceramics.

Shop the Short-Sleeve Tee and the Long-Sleeve Tee.

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The Cableknit Sweater

Where it started: as a rugged garment for fishermen off Ireland’s coast. Crafted from untreated wool, with the lanolin oils intact, the sweaters—often knitted by wives and sisters—were nearly waterproof. The hand-stitched cable pattern that made the sweaters durable and warm also caught the eyes of stylish Europeans who began wearing—and making—them too.

How we’re doing it: fitted with a clever row of buttons at the shoulder. The stitches honor the sweater’s traditions: a cable stitch, which represented fisherman’s ropes; diamond stitches, used for good luck; and zigzags, symbolizing life’s ups and downs. Ours doesn’t have the oily lanolin, but it’ll keep you plenty warm.

See an OG wear it: Elvis Presley in 1960. The singer made the chunky knit look surprisingly sexy.

Other textures we love: flaky croissants, Frei Otto’s buildings inspired by bubbles, Sue Ravitz’s textiles, kittens.

Shop the Marin Cable Sweater.

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The Simple, Unstructured Tote

Where it started: as a more polished cousin of market baskets. The French kept the tote-and-handle shape but traded straw for more durable fabrics like leather and later, suede. The idea was that there’s timeless ease and elegance in something simple.

How we’re doing it: with Sézane’s slouchy suede version, but it’s plenty durable. Designer Morgane Sézalory added four little gold feet to the bottom so you can set it down anywhere. 

See an OG wear it: Jane Birkin on the red carpet. Long before she had her own namesake bag, she was rarely photographed without a market basket as a purse. Yep, even when wearing beaded silk.

Other forms of simplicity we love: flaky croissants (again), playing the same song on repeat a million times, Frédéric Forest’s line drawings.

Shop the Sézane Vadim Tote.

Shop our entire Madewell x Sézane collaboration here.