From Provence out into the world
BY ANJA FAHS
The smell of lavender is beguiling. It mingles with the aromatic smell of pine and rosemary. On the horizon, the peaks of the Maritime Alps disappear in a blue haze and you know the sea is not far away. Provence is a unique region of France, an area that is proud of its breathtakingly beautiful countryside in which the best lavender in the world grows. Like a lilac-coloured sea, the lavender fields that seem to never want to end stretch over the gentle hills. A setting that was made for natural cosmetics.
Olivier Baussan grew up in Provence in between blossoming almond trees, sumptuous vineyards and lavender. He was interested in the native plants of his homeland and their fragrant ingredients from a young age. At the age of 23, with the help of an alembic (an alchemical still used for distilling) he distilled the essential oils from rosemary, put them on a small delivery wagon and sold his products on the village markets throughout Provence. So it was that the L’Occitane adventure began. We asked the 64 year old if he’d let us interview him.
Your company is 40 years old this year. When you look back on the first years in the 1970s, did you expect it to be such a great success?
Olivier Baussan: No, not at all, I was a dreamer back then; that was utopian for me. Without the help of Reinold Geiger and the international development he helped us achieve, our brand wouldn’t be what it is today. Thanks to his strategy of setting up boutiques worldwide, the brand prospered at a level that I could never have dreamed of. Despite this, it remained true to its values of authenticity, respect and indulgence for the senses. Reinold Geiger was successful in communicating these values on an international stage.
What does the name L’Occitane mean and how did you come to it?
O. B.: The name is a play on the name of an area called Occitania, an antique province rich in cultural and sensual resources that once stretched across the south of France. It also tells us about all the traditions connected with this region, that were handed down by medieval minstrels, about its cultural diversity and brotherhood. The name seemed to be quite obvious to me; it celebrates this astounding region and its centuries-old traditions.
What do you think about when you hear something about Provence? Do you have any special memories?
O. B.: It takes me back to my childhood and the fragrance of honeysuckle comes to me first. The smell of these flowers accompanied me along the road that led from my parents’ yard to my school. It was three kilometres of olfactory pleasures intensified by the singing of the farmers who harvested the lavender in summer and olives after the first snow had fallen. That is Provence: beautiful wild landscapes, typical colourful villages, fragrances and the sun, blossoming almond trees, traditional olive plantations, lavender, verbena, and I’d just like to add here that, of course, our brand is inspired by Provence, but not exclusively. It also has a quintessential connection with the spiritual picture of Burkina Faso, the traditional production of Shea butter and a great partnership in the sense of fair trade that has linked L’Occitane up with the Burkinabé women.
Where do your ingredients come from, other than Provence?
O. B.: Many of our ingredients come from Provence, some however come from the Mediterranean basin, the immortelle for instance, and of course, from Burkina Faso.
Where does your passion for natural cosmetics come from?
O. B.: I have always had a special affinity with plants and always wanted to process them with my old distillation apparatus after I’d bought them. Plants aren’t just a significant part of my life because of the wonderful effect they have, however, they also help me to develop a special relationship with people, to meet agriculturalists, workers and growers and to enable them to preserve their traditions. The L’Occitane brand actually stands for breathing new life into dying traditions, to begin getting production rolling and establishing them on a commercial level. As the brand is developing so fantastically well under Reinold Geiger’s guidance we can continue to support these traditions and their authentic histories.
What is the most important ingredient in your products? What makes them unique?
O. B.: Every ingredient is important, because each one has an authentic history. Behind every bottle is a traceable source, land of origin, manufacturers with demanding standards and techniques that rest on a long tradition in Provence or elsewhere. L’Occitane does have a special relationship with lavender however. The fragrance of it awakens so many feelings and that’s very important for the Haute-Provence countryside. And lavender is also naturally important in the sense that the use of lavender in our products preserves the precious connection between the farmers and nature. For this reason I have actively involved myself in a foundation dedicated to the conservation of lavender.
What is the L’Occitane foundation for exactly?
O. B.: We want to support other people and thanks to our international growth we can develop our involvement in charitable, beneficial projects. The foundation supports those who can’t use one of their important sensory organs, such as the eyes for example. The foundation also continues to support the emancipation of women, like those in Burkina Faso. And ultimately it helps great projects that preserve our natural and cultural inheritance– the funding for lavender for example that I was just talking about, or the revival of the cultural tradition of the almond tree in Haute-Provence.
You have also established an olive oil museum called the ‘L’Olivier Ecomuseum’. Why a museum?
O. B.: A museum, because it’s my aim to collect traditions, the history of the land, remnants from the past, and share them with anyone who shows an interest. So that nothing gets lost and things stay alive forever.
What was the most important step you took as a businessman in terms of success?
O. B.: My greatest success was my encounter with the Burkinabé women and the first order placed for Shea butter in the 1980s. It was all a coincidence. I first heard about Shea butter at an airport, and because of the story of this sacred tree and the nuts that were only harvested by women I decided to change my destination and got on the next flight to Ouagadougou. Shea butter has now become an ingredient of cult status, but primarily it was the precursor to financial emancipation for the women of Burkina Faso. The mutually beneficial partnership between us began with about a dozen women participating, whereas today over 17,000 women work together with us. So, my greatest success was a combined success.
When you look back on your success and your life in business, what have been your most important values?
O. B.: My most important value is sincerity. You have to be sincere if you want to be successful. There have to be real projects and deeds behind your communication. And you should remain humble, respectful and care about the people you work with.
Is there a particular quote that has always been significant throughout your life?
O. B.: There’s a quote by René Char, one of my favourite authors and it comes from a poem in his book entitled ‘Les Matinaux’: ‘Dans mon pays, les tendres preuves du printemps et les oiseaux mal habillés sont préférés aux buts lointains.’ It means, that our land is simple and true and that it shows reality without blushing. That is the quintessence of what I love and honour.
What have you been particularly proud of during your life, apart from your successful business?
O. B.: That I have remained myself, and that I have remained humble. That is my greatest success.
At 23 years old and with a university degree in Literature under his belt, Oliver Baussan’s entire enthusiasm is dedicated to an old set of distillation apparatus. At his home in Alpes de Haute Provence, he begins developing shampoos, uses his knowledge of plants for this and uses essential oils for his mixtures. He sells the shampoos on the regional markets in Provence – in 1976 the cornerstone for L’Occitane is laid.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q1 2016. Picture credit © LÓccitane en Provence/Jean-Jacques Bernard/Francois-Xavier Emery