From a single essential oil to a global name in skincare and fragrance: it’s been quite some journey for L’Occitane – and it began when Olivier Baussan, at the age of just 23, began selling an oil he’d distilled himself from rosemary plants, at the local open-air markets.
He’d had the aim, actually, of creating a bubble bath: a student of Modern Literature in Aix-en-Provence, Olivier bought a still (alembic), unused for 20 years, repaired it, and installed it on a trailer attached to the back of his Citroen 2CV. He first distilled rosemary, placing the alembic at the edge of the river Laye, in Limans, to source the water needed for the distillation. And he made that first bubble bath in the stone sink of an old shed.
And why the name? (Say it ‘Lox-i-tan’, by the way; it’s a pronunciation we know many people find fiendish.) L’Occitane was the name for the women of Occitania: an area of France which existed during the Middle Ages, embracing southern France, north-eastern Spain and northern Italy. (It had its own language, Occitan – which is still spoken as a second language in some parts of this area, today.)
Not long after that first foray into essential oils, Olivier moved into soap – reviving the traditional art of Marseilles soap-making at an old factory. As Olivier Baussan told The Independent newspaper, ‘Behind the products is a poetic vision of Provence. It’s the story of the land. My parents left Paris to come and work the land; I was raised with respect and love for its traditions.’
In 1977, Olivier bought his first harvest of lavender – the fragrant plant so associated with Provence. And it all took off from there: in 1992, the first L’Occitane boutique opened in Paris – on the Rue Vavin. By 1996, L’Occitane was scenting cities like New York and Hong Kong, via stores there.
But despite phenomenal global expansion, an ethical approach has always been written in L’Occitane‘s DNA. Their values, L’Occitane explain, are ‘authenticity, respect and sensoriality.’ This is one of the few ranges to use Braille on packaging, to help those with sight challenges (and have partnered with eye health charities around the world, too).L’Occitane‘s work with the communities of Burkina Fasso is also well-known, and widely respected. Olivier heard about the wonders of shea butter during a trip to Dakar, and struck up a partnership with communities there, with the idea of bringing about a better distribution of wealth and helping the country to develop.
Always with a Fairtrade approach, L’Occitane buys its processed shea butter at a price three and a half times higher than the local market – and in fact, this income helps supporting the emancipation of women. It’s a win-win: we get nourishing skin treats – and those women get a whole new future…
If there is one signature that L’Occitane is known for, it’s great smells. It’s not just the calming scent of lavender which wafts through L’Occitane‘s 700+ stores worldwide today: walk inside and you’ll experience the refreshing tang of verbena, the sweet scent of cherry blossom – or a breath of the aromatic immortelle, cultivated in wild, rocky Corsica, which scents its award-winning Immortelle anti-ageing range. L’Occitane‘s heritage selling fragrances, in fact, dates back to 1990, when the company bought a barge to distribute its products – spreading the aromas of Provence across France, and beyond.
Each of the La Collection de Grasse fragrances is a play on two ‘star’ ingredients. So, in the debut quartet, enjoy Jasmine & Bergamote: airy, fresh, ‘like a delicate flower blossoming in the light of dawn.’ There’s the seriously popular Magnolia & Mûre (blackberry), fusing magnolia oil from the far east with wild, musky blackberry, giving hints of woodiness. Thé Vert & Bigarade is cool and classic, sparkling with citrus, but on an aromatic base with that note of green tea. And last but not least, Vanille & Narcisse: warm and rich, with a floral-spicy heart, pulsing with Madagascan vanilla absolute in the base.
Ambre & Santal and Fleur d’Or & Acacia have followed, as well as Iris Bleu & Iris Blanc, which showcases iris’s many facets. And the whole collection inspired a Gold Medal-winning Provençale garden at 2015’s Chelsea Flower Show, designed by James Basson and perfectly evoking L’Occitane’s native surroundings via olive trees, roses, lavender, rosemary and more… (For a gorgeous exploration of the garden on their site, click here.)
Bottom line? As the blogger A Model Recommends observes, ‘L’Occitane are total experts at recreating the smells of the South of France, in my opinion.’ Quite so.
And the wonder of fragrance, of course, is that if you ever find yourself fantasising about a trip to the South of France – perhaps a tour in your own 2CV through the winding, stone-walled roads of Provence where L’Occitane‘s extraordinary story began – just a spritz really can whisk you there, in a heartbeat…
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