From Provence with love: 5 craft traditions gone global

September 17, 2014

While we’ll never fully understand why our creative director Christine Tatilon left Provence, we do know that countless designers, artists, writers and other creative souls have been inspired by the Mediterranean region. Not to mention the flock of tourists who show up every summer. How can one not succumb to the magic of the lavender fields, the ancient hilltop villages, the pastiche of colour and the dappled light?

Landscape, Provence by Jialiang Gao (peace-on-earth.org)

Provence has given the world impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, nouveau réalisme artist Yves Klein, and fashion designer Christian Lacroix, as well as Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and of course author Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. This southeastern region of France also introduced numerous culinary staples and delights, such as ratatouille, herbes de Provence, aioli, fougasse, calissons and pastis. And yet some of the region's most sought-after souvenirs come from the decor and beauty disciplines.

L’Occitane de Provence
With an international following and revenue totalling 1.04 billion Euros in 2012-13, L’Occitane is a Provence success story. The company began in 1976 with founder Olivier Baussan distilling rosemary essential oil and selling it in local markets. He then turned to reviving the region's traditional soap-making heritage and soon after capitalized on another of Provence’s icons, lavender. Today, the company produces bath and body care products as well as home fragrances, with a variety of ingredients from almond and shea butter to peonies and cherry blossoms. Check L’Occitane for a store near you.

Indienne fabrics
The story of the colourful “Indiennes,” the printed cotton fabrics that first arrived in Marseille from the Indies in the 1600s, is rife with seduction, royalty, rioting, convictions, prohibition, reinvention and survival. Founded in 1806 under a different name, Souleiado, which means “a ray of sun shining through the clouds after a rain,” has managed to survive for over 360 years, undergoing yet another reinvention in 2009 with new owners and a return to its historic printing blocks and famed motifs, such as florals, leaves, and insects. From ready-to-wear collections and fashion accessories to wallpapers, linens and glassware, Souleiado continues its reign of style.

Savon de Marseille
When Christine visited her mother in Marseilles this summer, she discovered a box filled with 16 blocks of Savon de Marseille — from 1939! These famous soaps are unmistakable — cube in shape, traditionally olive green or cream in colour, and stamped on all six sides with their percentage of oil, the company brand, the weight in grams, and of course the words “Savon de Marseille.”

Cubes of Savon de Marseille soap
Christine found these cubes of Savon de Marseille soap from 1939 in her mother's apartment during a recent visit to Marseille.

So what makes these soaps so special? The first mention of the soap’s production dates back to the 12th century and the ingredients haven’t changed much since: olive or palm oil and soda — no colouring agents or artificial additives. The production methods are strict (the high standards were written into law in 1688 by King Louis XIV), with each batch taking two weeks to make, but translate into cubes that can keep for years (like the pre-war stock of Christine’s mom). Once in hand, they can be used for everything from washing your skin to washing your clothes. And while the soap business was the city’s main industry in the early 20th century, today there are only a few companies that remain. Be wary of imitations: in December 2013, after many cheap knockoffs, Savon de Marseille received an IPG, (Indication géographique protégée), stating that only soaps made in the traditional method and within the Bouches-du-Rhône region of France can carry the name.

Faience pottery
Hundreds of workshops dot the Provence landscape, with villages like Vallauris, Apt and Biot building their centuries-old reputation on their fine French pottery and earthenware. Perhaps the most renowned is Moustiers Sainte-Marie, nicknamed the “cité de la faïence” and which in the 16th century further developed the white enamel technique created in the Italian town of Faenza. The ceramics, with their floral designs, became highly prized in the 17th century after Louis XIV ordered all gold and silver tableware melted down to finance his campaigns. Although the French pottery would lose its prestigious place to English bone-china and Chinese ceramics during the industrial revolution, it would return to the limelight in the early part of the 19th century and once again become highly sought-after. Visit the Moustiers Sainte-Marie tourism office website for a list of shops and museum hours.

Edith Mézard
For almost 30 years, Edith Mézard has been transforming home linens into works of art. Her passion ignited by her grandmothers, she spent thousands of hours perfecting her technique. The pay-off: delicate hand-embroidered pieces for bath, bed and table that have garnered international attention, including the likes of Calvin Klein and Princess Caroline of Monaco. It’s not hard to see why; upon a soft palette of whites, creams and greys, Mézard embroiders flowers, initials, poems and single words, such as bonheur, amour and ange, onto the highest quality linens with exquisite attention to detail. Sweet nights, elegant days.




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