An impulsive purchase of a big still made him embark on a scent-sual journey. Olivier Baussan, founder, L’Occitane, speaks to Aparna Gupta about the moments, inspirations and human values that have defined the brand....
In 1976, as a 23-year-old young man, Olivier Baussan made a modest beginning, selling rosemary essential oil at the local market in Provence. Today, his products have more than 1500 points of sale in 100 countries across five continents. In a conversation with Verve, he rewinds to the long journey that created and established the wellness brand, L’Occitane.
How did the brand take shape?
I vividly remember the very beginning of L’Occitane – in fact, the actual day it all started. I had bought this big and impressive still, which now stands at the museum in Manosque, from a farmer who wanted to get rid of it to make space in his barn. After buying it, I wondered whether I would be able to make it work for I only had some basic technical knowledge.
What prompted you to buy it?
It had been an impulsive buy – it was a kind of love-at-first-sight thing. When I decided that it was time to experiment with it, I could hardly sleep the previous night. I woke up early in the morning and took the still down to the bank of the River Forcalquier. I cut some rosemary since these were the only plants around in bloom. I started the machine and while the distillation process was getting underway, something quite astounding happened.
On that cold April morning, the steam rising from the still was trapped under the air. I soon realised that we were shrouded in a magical mist. When I saw the first few drops of essential oils, dripping out of the tap, mix in the water, it was a marvellous feeling. I felt like an alchemist and so many memories of my childhood drifted back to me. At that time, I was very happy and knew that I would always be happy doing just that.
Describe a day in the life of Olivier Baussan, founder, L’Occitane.
I spend most of my time in a Provencal village, next to a lavender field and olive trees where I harvest olives to make my own olive oil. I also like going to Corsica where I can walk in the wild immortelle fields which overlook the sea.
What would you say is real beauty in a woman?
The inner beauty of a woman is the most beautiful thing. A woman who takes care of herself is very often a woman who takes care of others and is a woman who likes sharing.
For quite some time, beauty brands have drawn inspiration from nature. When did you see the synergy between plants, science and beauty?
The use of natural, traceable and high quality ingredients is at the very core of our product development. As often as possible we select ingredients of a controlled-origin, from organic agriculture and source them from local farming communities and sustainable development programmes. The soil plays a very important role in the composition of plant-based extracts. For example, immortelle grows mainly in the Mediterranean Basin, Italy, Greece, Bosnia and Croatia. But we have discovered the Helichrysum Italicum in the northern part of Corsica – it has the highest concentration in the active principle of neryl acetate, about four to 10 times higher than in the other regions. And it is this active principle that gives it all the anti-ageing properties that we have studied in this oil. Even though the efficacy of the ingredients is well-established by tradition, we are committed in proving it scientifically.
What should one look for while buying natural products derived from nature?
Among the numerous natural brands, it is important to choose those which have developed a strong commitment by putting nature at the heart of their formulation policy. Only such brands can guarantee perfect quality through the traceability of their ingredients, scientific proof of their effectiveness and their good tolerance on the skin.
L’Occitane is known for its ongoing commitment to sustainable development.
Sustainable development was just part of the values that I have always striven to maintain at L’Occcitane. For me, it had more to do with the human values around a plant, the traditions that bond the men around the work they do for this plant. So when I designed the packaging for the Immortelle cream, I looked for the blue, not of the sea but the blue of the Corsican fishermen’s jacket – a colour that would honour the traditional trade of the land of Corsica. The splotch of yellow is the colour of a bright sun, so close to the colour of the helicrysum, the Immortelle flower.
What factors led to the universal acceptance of the brand?
When R. Geiger (chairman, L’Occitane) opened the first store in New York, he thought the best way to go about it would be to open the exact same store in France and then see what had to be changed. This is also the way he went about it in Japan. He quickly came to the conclusion that there was just nothing to change. So when a company passes on such an elementary, unsophisticated message, isn’t it a universal message? We don’t sell a label, we sell an uncomplicated story.
Shea Butter is harvested by hand by local women in Burkina Faso Africa, before being made into creams, lotions, soaps and other products at L’Occitane’s factory in Provence. Just 20 years ago there were 10 women, and in 2011 there were 12000 women collecting shea nuts and producing shea butter. The shea tree has become a symbol of their economic emancipation.
Lavender was one of the first flowers distilled by Olivier Baussan, the founder of L’Occitane. Lavender used in the products is exclusively sourced from farmers’ cooperatives on the Plateau de Saultin Haute-Provence.
Harvesting immortelle flowers
Immortelle is also known as the everlasting flower, because this plant retains its form and colour when dried. L’Occitane has extracted a precious essential
oil from the immortelle, which has anti-free radical and anti-wrinkle properties.
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