Watanabe has turned his hand to maritime dress. And nautical prints and Breton stripes have never looked so good, says Susannah Frankel

Junya Watanabe is not easy to pin down. Michelle Obama might love wearing his cardigans but he is just as reluctant to speak about his work as his mentor, Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo. Both occupy a position that decrees that their designs speak for themselves. That is not unreasonable. If there is a single characteristic that runs through Watanabe's output, however, it is his ability to transform the clichéd – and even ubiquitous – into something more interesting by nature.

He does so on a six-monthly basis, for women and also men. A year ago now, Watanabe turned his attention to the masculine trouser suit, as ever, ingeniously crafted to suit the feminine form. Last season, he looked to army-green rib-knits, cottons and camouflage prints for inspiration, and to spectacularly romantic effect. His current collection, meanwhile, takes as its starting point the nautical reference that is as central to the summer wardrobe – and the French summer wardrobe in particular – as strawberries and cream are to Wimbledon. In his hands it is transformed into something as sartorially discerning as it is sweet, as considered as it is considerate of the modern woman's sartorial requirements.

In fact, and following on from his menswear show in Paris in June, Watanabe would say only that the women's collection was a study of "stripes". With its Breton-style knits, sailor pants and prints featuring anchors, sailing ships, bunting and more, it's safe to say that the staples of life on the ocean wave were also on the designer's mind.

Given the complexity of Watanabe's pattern cutting, while light, feminine and easy to wear, the pleating, looping and draping of silken fabrics fused with cardigans, T-shirts and shorts with more than a passing resemblance to Edwardian swimwear is no small technical feat. And while far from indebted to the French bourgeois tradition, there's more than a touch of Biarritz, circa 1916, to the look, too – brought up to date in a manner of which even Coco Chanel might have been proud.

The great lady herself was famously photographed on the beach at Deauville, with her dog Gigot, and wearing striped jersey and sailor pants. It's an upbeat, footloose and fancy-free style (as thoroughly befitted a freshly emancipated time) and one that soon came to signify Riviera chic, the sporting good looks of the 1920s and the happy optimism of the photography of Jacques Henri Lartigue.

Après Chanel, le déluge. Since that time, nautical references have become the staples of any holiday wardrobe worthy of its fashion credentials and they look good in a metropolitan environment too. This season alone, at Jil Sander, Raf Simons has come up with striped designs reminiscent of hyper-real, oversized deckchairs. There's a sunny maritime feel to Miuccia Prada's less conventionally coloured stripes, gracing tiered sun dresses and wide-brimmed hats – perfect for the most fashionable beaches – and equally upbeat fun-fur stoles – what with the sand, perhaps best left at home. More stripes at Jean-Paul Gaultier, where slouchy knitted trousers and jumpsuits are the designer's most recent take on the Breton knit – a French fisherman's sweater in its original incarnation – and as much a signature here as the conical bra and dressing men in skirts.

"The Breton stripe T-shirt is a childhood memory for me," Gaultier told the Financial Times recently. "My grandmother used to dress me in Breton tops, so when I think of navy stripes I feel a nostalgia for that era when I was growing up. And then, of course, there is Jean Genet and Querelle de Brest and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film of that novel. At the beginning of the 1980s, I started wearing the Breton stripe top again. I wore them everywhere, even with a tuxedo for gala evenings. I paired them with everything – jeans, even a kilt."

In rather less cartoonish vein, the editor of Vogue Paris, Emmanuelle Alt, has also adopted this quintessentially Gallic look, wearing it mainly with skinny denim, and only adding to its appeal.

A brief history of nautical dress: there is some dissent over who, precisely, gave the world the sailor suit. The British claim that it was their navy that first wore trousers made from ticking – used to cover mattresses – around 200 years ago. They were smeared with tar to make them waterproof. The Americans insist that sailor trousers – with wide legs that were easy to roll up to the knee to keep dry on deck – were their invention, however. Whatever, these were soon everywhere, matched with jackets dyed with indigo from India. A hat, also tar-covered, was worn at sea, then adorned with ribbons and flowers when ships sailed into port.

By the mid-19th century, a standard maritime uniform had been established. It was a symbol not only of a seafaring existence but also of the hedonism associated with those who wore it, given the folkloric girl in every port. Queen Victoria restored the sailor suit to more prim and proper prominence when, as a birthday gift for her husband, she had a children's version made for their oldest son, Bertie, the future Edward VII. The heir to the throne – then, all of four years old – was photographed in said garb, thereby setting the standard for wealthy families to dress their children in nautical outfits, including Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who was photographed in this manner not long before his death.

More than a century on and, outside navy circles at least, a woman or man in a head-to-toe maritime look is more likely to raise sniggers over and above admiring glances. Think Donald Duck. Or indeed Popeye. Not the greatest of fashion icons to aspire to. Best, then, to adopt a more lateral take on a time-honoured theme, which is where Mr Watanabe comes in. Nobody does a lateral take on a time-honoured theme better than he does, after all.