On a record-high day of 44˚C (111˚F) in late June, as we drive away from the medieval town of Tarascon in Provence, in the South of France, we follow a long windy path framed with olive trees that seems to lead to nowhere. Without a house in sight, we continue our drive uphill onto an unpaved road, windows wide open with only the sound of cicadas and the heavy feel of the blazing heat piercing through the car.
We finally arrive on the scenic estate of 62-year-old French style icon, designer, author and model Inès de la Fressange. The property sprawls over 37 acres of lavender bushes and more olive trees with gnarled and twisted trunks surrounding the off-white façade of her house, trimmed with doors and window shutters painted a soothing blue.
De la Fressange, wearing white drawsting linen pants and an oversize navy-blue linen shirt immediately greets us with an infectious smile and an enchantingly laid-back demeanour. Amidst the grandeur of the property, she instantly makes you feel welcomed.
“Let me show you around the house,” she says, “and don’t worry, you can do whatever you want, you can move things around. I’m not a maniac,” she jokes, with a deep, contagious laughter. “This is exactly the type of house that is not meant to be photographed for Harper’s Bazaar. It’s more of a little bazaar – everything comes from the flea market. I wanted a house that feels like it’s existed forever and feels like a holiday home; a house for family, friends and dogs. For people to come in and out freely and happily, where everything is simple, and nothing is precious. Politicians and celebrities have stayed at the house, but they had to adopt its style. And usually they appreciate it.”
It was over 30 years ago that de la Fressange fell for the region of Provence, where she met and married her late husband, Italian businessman and art historian Luigi d’Urso, father of her two daughters, Nine, 25, and Violette, 20. Provence remains today her idyllic vacation spot, where she gathers with friends and family and her partner of nearly 10 years, media executive Denis Olivennes.
“In Provence you can do many things,” says de la Fressange. “You can of course play tennis, golf, ride horses – but it’s really a place for people who appreciate not doing anything. We are French, so we eat, we sleep, we read. We go to the village, where you can listen to music and meet friends. There are theatre festivals in the summer and high-quality art exhibitions. There’s the Frank Gehry museum soon to open in the neighbouring town of Arles, great museums in the city of Avignon as well as the Palais des Papes, one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. After years of travelling, I understood that places are great when there’s history, a cultural past. Here, Romans built many roads and monuments, and you can feel it. Henry James wrote about his trip in Provence. Hemingway also loved the region. Sometimes you go to the end of the world, and there are beautiful beaches, but after three days you’re just fed up. That’s something quite snobbish to say, but there’s such a lack of history, you can feel it. Maybe I’m just an old, traditional European woman,” she smiles.
As she walks us through her two-storey home, a former retreat for monks that dates back to the 18th century, she points out the warm light streaming into the house. “The light in Provence is incredible; that’s why Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso and so many painters loved this region,” says de la Fressange.
White-washed walls and crisp linen curtains dress the rustic yet elegant rooms, casually furnished with wooden tables and chairs, along with woven straw baskets and other eclectic decorative purchases from local markets and from some of de la Fressange’s world travels to Morocco, Tunisia and India. A mix of earthy textures and splashes of red, ochre and blue carefully dispersed throughout the house reveal a thoughtful and artistic composition of informal elegance, perfectly projecting her effortless yet refined style.
“I make mood boards for houses, just like for my fashion collections,” says de la Fressange. “I follow a story. This one has a lot of white, a bit of brown, a little bit of mustard. I dress up my houses like I would dress up a woman. And I wouldn’t dress anyone the same way. I have a house in Normandy and another one in Paris, and the decor is very different.”
Indeed, de la Fressange knows a thing or two about mood boards and creating looks. She has designed 14 collections with the Japanese brand Uniqlo over the past seven years; she’s been the ambassador of luxury shoe brand Roger Vivier for 17 years; and she has her own namesake label and storefront in the Left Bank of Paris, where she sells women’s apparel, accessories and houseware. With her garnered fashion authority, she has published multiple bestselling books on Parisian chic. But her fashion savoir faire dates back to her experience in the early ’80s as model and muse for Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld.
“I’ve learned with the best teacher, who was Karl Lagerfeld, at the best school, which was Chanel,” she says. “To be able to work seven years in the studio with Karl, it’s like having a diploma from Central Saint Martins; it’s better. You learn a lot. I learned a lot about business, communication, marketing. And not to have too many meetings, because Karl hated meetings. During the fittings, I would sometimes tell him, ‘Oh, it’s awful, don’t do that,’ and he would reply, ‘Yes, it’s awful, but we have to try. It’s important.’ And it was such a good lesson. You should always push a little and always ask yourself, ‘Why not?’ And keep thinking with an open mind, without any prejudices.”
That open-mindedness seems to come rather naturally to de la Fressange. During her early modelling days, she was coined “the talking mannequin,” always keen to pose for photographers and speak to journalists. Her personality full of charm and confidence drew the attention of the fashion world, while her effortless style was coveted by many who yearned to emulate her sense of chic.
“My style,” she reveals, “is, finally, simple things: white jeans, navyblue, oversize shirts. A simple white silk shirt fits me better than embroideries. And when it has to be a little bit dressier, and because I am underdressed most of the time, I’ll wear Roger Vivier shoes or a Roger Vivier bag. People are very disappointed when they come to my home, because they see navy-blue sweaters, white shirts, white jeans, navy-blue jackets, and they expected embroideries from Chanel. My evolution is less and less and less. When I look at pictures of myself when I was 25, I had lipstick, eyeliner, big hair and big earrings. When you’re young, you have the feeling you need so much. You need hair, you need clothes, you’re into consumerism. Mostly I’m still into consumerism, but I don’t want it to show,” she laughs. “When I look at these pictures, the ones I prefer are usually the ones where I don’t have as much. It takes a lifetime to understand that. Also, after a certain age, if you have too much, it’s pathetic. If you’re wearing a fur coat, a crocodile bag, diamonds and sunglasses, you will look 10 years older. And why spend all this money to look older and worse?”
Along with her natural flair for aesthetics, a distinct business acumen enabled de la Fressange to create a strong brand out of herself, with the knowledge to sell that very brand while constantly refreshing it with her inherent free-spirit. “I realised here [in Provence] that usually, at the end of holidays, everybody despairs about going back to real life. So I thought: Why should I go back to real life? It’s pathetic to work a whole year for one month of holidays. I go to meetings like it would be an appointment with friends, and I try to stay cool when I work, the way I am cool here. I’ve read so many articles about women who manage to wake up early in the morning, drink some green juice, practice yoga, meditation; and after, they have time to take care of their children and go out in the evening. I am not that kind of woman. I am lazy. I am late, I’m a procrastinator… but I manage to work with people that I love everywhere, at Inès de la Fressange, at Uniqlo and at Roger Vivier. That’s my huge luxury. And I trust people.” De la Fressange seems to have found the perfect formula to her success, while always keeping her cool.
From Harper's BAZAAR Arabia's December 2019 Issue
Images: Inès de la Fressange