To meet Olivier Baussan when we love Provence is quite an event. With a spring in his step, this charming gentleman is one of the figures that incarnates Provence of today. Like Marcel Pagnol or Paul Ricard in their day, he has managed to glorify this region that he holds so close to his heart, without ever wearing it out. Provençal since his earliest childhood, Olivier Baussan studied in Aix-en-Provence, where he was passionate about literature, a love for words that he still cultivates today through readings going from Jean Giono’s Strong Souls (Âmes Fortes) to Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. A unique personality, he discovered at the end of the 1970’s the art of distillation and launched into the production of essential oils and handmade soaps. The intuition of this Provence lover is evident too: to distill the plants whose perfumes he’d been breathing all his life. From rosemary, then juniper, lavender, or the olive tree he drew powerful nectars with cosmetic properties. From this idea L’Occitane was born, created in 1976 in homage to a region close to Olivier Baussan’s heart. Very quickly, this activist for natural products made a name for himself, under the Provence sun. For this bohemian soul, souvenirs, encounters and desires guide the creation of each product. Because it’s much more than just a postcard from Provence, L’Occitane has become a brand that can’t be ignored, and an ambassador for the region, in France and beyond. If Olivier Baussan is no longer the owner of the company, his spirit remains. As L’Occitane’s artistic director, he continues to instill new ideas, new inspiration, and to sum up, his poetic vision. What’s so striking about Olivier Baussan, is his adventurous and dreamy spirit. Eleven years ago, as he was going to pick up a friend in Bastia he discovered by chance a little distillery working with the Immortelle flower, a plant from the Corsican scrubland that he’s been in contact with since his childhood; his parents were fans of the bohemian spirit that reigned at the time in Corsica. The result: a line of innovative products and the development of organic farming in Corsica based around the flower. When we ask him if he dreams of discovering new plants, he says “I like things that happen by chance, I find that when we try too hard, we don’t find what we’re looking for. I try to be open to other people’s traditions; I like artisanal know-how and craftspeople, as I recognize myself in them. The respect for tradition touches me.” This availability is a state of mind that Olivier Baussan has been attached to since the beginning, he continues “my way of dressing doesn’t correspond to a style that I cultivate, but it’s something in which I feel at ease since it means I can be in contact with anyone. In the country we recognize each other; the farmer will be wearing the same thing as me, and we recognize each other! I’ve never been tempted by ostentation, as in my nature it is absolutely necessary to avoid it!
I don’t want to put up walls between myself and others. As the beginning of L’Occitane, I made friends with small producers, people respected and trusted me despite my youth and the relative uncertainty of my initiatives, I spoke the same language, had the same vision of nature but without using clichés. I hate clichés! And when we bring up ecology, this son of Provence enjoys himself: “I don’t use this word any more! I brought old words up-to-date, like co-development instead of Fair Trade, which seems more legitimate. First we think about developing ourselves, but what’s important as far as I can see is to do it while allowing others to grow too.”
A philosophy that he’s been putting into practice since the 80s: he went to Burkina Faso to work with Shea and put in place a program destined to help women, the only ones allowed to harvest these nuts. Shea, his favorite ingredient thought not from
Provence, comes from a lovely story to which Olivier Baussan adds new chapters via a L’Occitane Foundation initiative with the women of Burkina Faso.
A serendipitous error or just the heart’s inclination? Shea Butter Hand Cream is his favorite product and the brand’s bestseller! Olivier Baussan can’t help being sincere; it’s part of his personality. He’s not afraid to say that it’s more fun to quote Giono than to make marketing statements, when he’s behind the biggest French commercial successes in the domain of natural cosmetics!
Olivier Baussan never fails to surprise. His love for Provence is not at all an exclusive passion. And the brand’s international success is also due to this openness to the world. When the question of architecture comes up, the L’Occitane founder gets enthusiastic about the architect Tadao Ando at the Château La Coste estate in Puy Sainte-Réparade, he who sees himself just as easily living in a building designed by the modernist Mies van der Rohe as in his heritage listed residence in the village of Forcalquier.
He likes to go bargain hunting for vintage pieces in l'Isle sur la Sorgue as much as he enjoys eyeballing contemporary creations. He hates the Provence of clichés, considering that there’s other things to see, and encourages people to take their time, like in those moments he spends on his boat in the Port of Bonifacio composing a haiku* for his city-dweller friends like others write tweets. It’s when we take our time that good things happen, “And when we are available things come to us and I like to give time to discovering. When you pull the string on a discovery, with all the delicacy that it implies, it’s an immense pleasure. Everything happens slowly when we respect it…” Olivier Baussan doesn’t only speak of Provence, he also speaks of love.