By Allison Zisko
Tucked into the rolling hills and breathtaking vistas of southeastern France are ateliers where French artisans make tabletop and other home furnishings the same way they have for generations—by hand, with integrity and a commitment to proven manufacturing techniques, yet with an eye on the modern market.
On the other side of the Atlantic are American independent specialty retailers who appreciate custom-made goods and French design, and who crave unique merchandise that will set them apart from their department store and specialty chain brethren.
A recent match-making effort between these two groups sewed the seeds of potentially beautiful relationships.
In an event organized by the Chambre de Metiers et de L’Artisanat in France and the New York office of the French Trade Commission, seven American retailers from different parts of the country had the opportunity to travel to France to meet with the workshop owners, watch the products being made, and discuss opportunities for partnerships.
“The goals of the program are to introduce American specialty retailers to French suppliers [of textiles, pottery, glass and other home furnishings] whom they never would have met because these French suppliers don’t exhibit at American trade shows,” said Sara Harris, a New York-based senior trade advisor for UbiFrance, part of the French Trade Commission. The vendors that participated in the program are all EPV members, or “living heritage companies,” certified by the French government for their excellence in French manufacturing, their unique savoir faire and the fact that all goods are made in France. Most of these companies do not have American representation or distribution, yet are eager to expand their business—slightly—and appeal to smaller mom-and-pop stores in the United States looking to place small orders and who are, for the most part, flexible on delivery.
The trip focused on the region of Southeast France that includes Aix en Provence, Marseilles and Cannes. “We saw a diversity of products from categories presented from companies capable of supplying the American retailer, companies that correspond to American taste,” Harris said.
Marius Fabre and Savonnerie Le Serail both make Marseilles soap, known for its purity and its extremely short list of ingredients—olive or palm oil, baking soda, sea salt and water. The mixture is boiled in vats, skimmed, washed with salt water, poured into wooden frames to cool and then cut into blocks.
Les Olivades, a table linen and upholstery supplier, stocks untreated fabric, bleaches and mercerizes it, and silk screens the designs (many of them traditional Provencal looks) on long tables using a technique that is close to traditional manual methods of printing. The recent closing of Pierre Deux has left the company looking to expand its distribution, according to company principal JF Boudin.
Barbotine is an earthenware maker from Aubagne whose charismatic owner, Philippe Beltrando, can expertly sketch a centuries-old design into the soft clay of a large platter in minutes, but whose shop also carries a wide range of dinnerware, ovenware and bakeware with more modern motifs. Fellow potter Lou Pignatier and faience manufacturers Trois L and Atelier Soleil (who supplies French chef Alain Ducasse with dinnerware for Ducasse’s nearby restaurant La Bastide de Moustiers) likewise demonstrate age-old techniques and the ability to adapt them for a contemporary audience.
Atelier Wiart and Le Carreau Provencal manufacture enameled lava stone tables, countertops and other items; La Verrerie de Biot makes mouthblown glassware and is known for its bubble glass (the result of trapped air, a manufacturing defect that was transformed into a specialty). Biot, which owns the name and is the only company that can use it, only works with specialty retailers because, as owner Anne Lechaczynski told her American visitors, “You understand better our product and can explain it.”
Indeed, the ability to tell the story behind the product enhances the specialty retailer’s assortment. “I rarely buy anything that doesn’t have a story,” said Danah Fisher, owner of Bramble, a boutique outside of Chicago. It’s important to meet the artisans behind the product and the jobs that are being generated by it, she said, and her customers like to hear about the process.
The ability to tell a story also offers an opportunity for differentiation. “You have to separate yourself from the big box retailers,” Fisher said.
Michelle Anderson, who with her husband Chuck owns three stores called La Dentelliere and La Dentelliere At Home in Westchester County, N.Y., just north of New York City, agreed. “I don’t want to be a department store,” she said. “I want to bring in the artisans and tell people [how things are made].” Her customers (President Bill Clinton and NBA Commissioner David Stern have been among them) are sometimes familiar with French names such as Biot, and when they understand the level of workmanship behind the products they understand why these goods often cost more.
Susan Sears is an e-tailer who has operated the French-oriented QuelObjet.com since 2004. She is always on the lookout for new suppliers, otherwise “people won’t keep coming back to the site if they don’t see anything new.”
Sears said she hasn’t been able to bring in French pottery before because the costs of shipping are typically very high, but by banding together with other retailers on the trip for a group shipment, “it makes it more feasible to me.”
In the online world, good product shots are vital, but it’s hard to tell whether the story of a product has an impact on a customer’s purchasing decision, according to Sears. “I try to put in both an interesting and a fair description so they know what they’re getting,” she said. “I look for the story, but I honestly don’t know if [it affects the customer’s decision].”
Linda Motley is the owner of PS The Letter, a boutique in Dallas. At the end of the six-day trip, she said she was most interested in the Barbotine pottery and the Marius Fabre soap, and would probably bring in Biot since Biot has an agent in the U.S. who will know if—and how many—other retailers sell the line in her area of Dallas. “My customer is always looking for something new, unique and beautiful,” she said. “I think the image of France is always beautiful. A lot of my customers are well traveled, so this will speak to them.”