Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Shopping in Provence, France

Maryl returns from France with a new dress, perfume, face cream and hairstyle

I mourn the days when shopping in France, in all of Europe for that matter, meant being able to afford high fashion for less or at least sans the VAT (value added tax).  Then came the Euro, a rapidly changing global economy, outlet stores, Loehmann’s and Century 21 here in the US and the bargains weren’t so great anymore.  But there’s still something to be said about wearing “an original” and being able to say “I got it in France”.  Here’s how I did it.

From the wide boulevards in Paris to the narrow cobblestones streets of the villages of Provence, there are less known fashion designers and artisans tucked away in single workshops or their own boutiques.  I found dresses, tops, bottoms, shoes, bags, jewelry so avant-garde and beautifully made that I had to restrain myself several times even though the pricing was very affordable.  This is not something typically covered or kept up-to-date in travel guides.  You can happen upon them although it’s easier to be directed there by a local fashionista, which I was.  So here’s some of my shopping finds:

TOULON Shopping – Dress and face cream ✔ ✔

Veronique Rouge, Abyss designer
There weren’t any designer or retail shops in Colobrieres, a small medieval village where I was staying with my friend Susan.   However, Toulon, the closest city a short car trip away had a few noteworthy ones to offer.  I was on the search for a dress to wear to a fancy family wedding this month but didn’t expect to find it in the first store we entered.  Once inside L’atelier d'Abyss (13 Bis rue Paul Lendrin),  I knew it would be difficult to leave with out a purchase.  Veronique Rouge, the designer herself, fitted me with several of her styles, most of them made with sumptuous silks that draped and gathered over my body and most one size fits all too.  

Ties in the front or back!

She has been designing for a few decades all around France before setting up shop in Toulon and helping to make it a fashion center again.  We found out that Veronique and her husband sail back and forth between France and the coast of Maine on their own schooner.  Could a shop in the USA be far off?  In the meantime Veronique also has a boutique in Montpellier and you can find her fashions at the Forum des halles in Paris and at Nebka in Marseille as well.  I went for a sexy halter top over an elegant wrap chemise for less than $200.  I should have bought both but it was only my first stop! 

Toulon also has a Cotelac.  Some of you may be familiar with this retail chain as they have stores in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and two in New York City and throughout France and some of Europe.  They have dresses and blouses in the sweetest prints and were featuring uniquely colored striped sweaters in the front of the store.  They are priced a bit higher than at Abyss but we don’t have to wait for the semiannual July sales.  Markdowns started earlier this month over here and online.

A local pharmacie in Toulon carried the face cream I was looking for as most do.  Avid “A Femme d’un Certain Age” blog readers are already familiar with Eucerin Hyaluron Filler, an anti aging formula, thanks to Tish Jett and her pharmacist who swear by it.  It’s not available in the US and only occasionally on Amazon where it was much more expensive than what I paid even without the special promotion.  I picked up one for Caryl too.

HYERES Shopping

Caroline Bonnet, fashion designer
A few days later we lunched scrumptiously at GardenSaradam (35, Avenue de Belgique), a Moroccan restaurant in Hyeres, an old resort town east of Toulon.  After we walked through the old town, and while most of the shops were closed for their lunch time break, we stumbled upon Caroline Bonnet, a fashion designer and stylist, busy at work in her atelier, Kako Diffusion (1 rue St. Catherine). 
Caroline Bonnet designs
You bring her the fabric for a coat or dress or whatever and she will craft it into the most original designs.  She had a few long thick wool coats that grace your body and an elegant wedding dress with delicate beaded fringe under the bodice hanging in her shop.  She even custom makes espadrilles!  What a find.

COLOBRIERES Shopping – Hairstyle

Meanwhile back in Colobrieres, Susan 
introduces me to Jacques, a local hairstylist who at one time did Brigitte Bardot’s coif.  That would probably be a list of few dozen but what the heck my hair needed a trim.  So I threw caution to the wind and let Jacques have his way with me.  Just to give a sense of the risk here, Jacques speaks no English, Susan speaks some French and after throwing out a few directives, she left me there alone!  I'm still perfecting the blow dry but already getting lots of compliments.

AIX-EN-PROVENCE Shopping – Perfume

Aix was like a mini-Paris.  It doesn’t have a Les Deux Magots brasserie but we did lunch at Les Deux Garcons situated at 53 Cours Mirabeau, a broad strolling boulevard.  Couples and families are out and about walking baby carriages and dogs in this shopping area.  It’s Saturday and there’s all kinds of outdoor markets to be had. 

Karen Gerhat, lavender purveyor
At the very first stall we meet the quintessential purveyor of products from Provence, Karen Gerhat who comes into Aix from her farm outside the city to sell her quintessential lavender-filled pillows in all shapes and sizes. She swears the fragrance will last ten years.  She’s as precious as the heart-shaped bunny pillow I bought for my granddaughter and she speaks perfect English too.  (Karen not my granddaughter who’s only one.)

At the other end of that lavender products spectrum is the brand name company, Durance.  They sell perfumes, soaps, creams, pillows and anything else you can attach an aroma to - and not just lavender.  Their products are available all over France and make great souvenirs. 
Durance fragrances
 If you are looking for more familiar designer brand name apparel, there are many shops that carry all the famous labels and at those famous prices as well but there is a difference.  For example the two floors of La Grand Baix (7 bis, rue de la glaciere) had Alexander Wang and Isabel Marant designs but in styles not commonly seen in the USA.  The shop also carries jewelry by Belgium-born Catherine Michiels whose unique pieces reflect her connectivity to the spiritual world.   She designs her own charms, each one having a soulful meaning.  They are worn on silk cords either as a bracelet or necklace.

I thought Provence would be the perfect place to find a little known perfumery whose unique fragrances haven’t been discovered yet.  Aix was the place where we chanced upon the brand new Rose & MariusI can become baffled quickly testing new scents but at Rose & Marius there was only three to choose from with notes of rose, melon, fig, orange and more that evoke a walk through the hills of Provence. There’s also a selection of candles that come with custom-designed porcelain tumblers inspired by tile motifs from the grand estates of the region.  I bought two of the scents and so did Susan who’s normally allergic to all perfumes.

PARIS Shopping – Dress (for daughter) 

I know this is a post on shopping in Provence but I had to fly home through Paris.  It doesn’t hurt to just look, right? 
Miller & Bertaux
So we made a beeline to Susan’s favorite designer’s shop, Miller & Bertaux (17 rue Ferdinand Duval) in La Marais.  Their dresses and separates embodied architectural lines to form atypical yet flattering silhouettes.  I must warn you these designs don’t come cheaply and the July sales hadn’t started yet.  Their home goods and accessories were just as unique yet more affordable.

For those of you who fancy the big French designers but not at those big price tags, there are a number of luxury vintage shops throughout the city.  We stopped in at Depot-Vente DELUXE (2 rue du Roi de Sicile and online) and it took us a while to realize their clothing and accessories were second hand.

We continued along the crooked streets of La Marais until we were stopped in our path by a beautiful display of hand-dyed and handmade leather bags at Cecile Jeanne (19 rue Ferdinand Duval and throughout Paris andmore).  The colors ranged from naturals to lively hues, all reasonably priced.  We particulary liked their new line of multi-colored designs . 

By the time we made it to Paris, my daughter had joined us.  And of course she needed a dress for the family wedding too.  She scouted our left bank location where we were staying and found Heroines.  The fabrics and dresses are designed in France and made in England.  We helped Svetlana pick out an unusual cloud print, a la Magritte.  She’ll look heavenly in this frock with her pink satin heels.   

Needless to say there are endless number of retail establishments in Paris to choose from.  We browsed in Agnes B (Caryl’s favorite French designer) and Paul & Joe (one of mine) and these are more available back in the states. 

After all that browsing we needed a break and tea at Mariage Freres (13 rue des Grands-Augustins near our hotel but all over Paris) always hits the spot.  Their book of teas goes on and on and the food is too beautiful to eat but we did.  The shop downstairs sells the packaged teas and even some of the unusual condiments.

Speaking of food, the French still have the upper hand on that in many ways.  I had the opportunity to shop as a native this trip and was impressed with the availability of more unique items and their freshness.  Organic seems to be a given and not the odd request. In particular I have to mention the food chain brand Picard.  The store was so clean and well laid out; you could have set up a table and eaten right there but only after defrosting or microwaving…all their foods are frozen  I could do all my shopping for the week there and never miss the grocery store.  I’m told they made an attempt to open up in the USA but our frozen food industry put a stop to it.  That’s how good it is!

I"ve only put a dent in hitting all the better shopping options in Provence (and Paris) but I feel that I was more in the know this time around.  I would definitely go back to Abyss in Toulon for another dress or two.  I’d return to Cotelac but also hit their store closest to me at home.  Aix, my mini Paris, was my favorite shopping location with the markets, unique boutiques and now my new perfumery.  And clearly I’ll need to revisit Colobrieres and Jacques to keep up the new hairdo.  As you know, "I got it in France!"


  1. We are only about 30 minutes from Colobrieres and 40 mins from Hyeres. Will check out some of the places you suggested next time we are there.

    1. Nice. I'm sure you have some shopping tips in the area to share as well!

  2. Replies
    1. So much fun but I refuse to get on a scale. I ate so much and I'm not talking "whole foods", Ruth!

  3. Ahhhh. What a trip. The dress, bracelets, teacup; all were beautiful. Thank you for enabling all of us to be there with you. Well, almost. Maryl, I am wondering if you speak French? In my second life, I would like to learn another language but I cant even remember words in English sometimes. Thanks again for this wonderful trip. joan

    1. Hi Joan, I had my Rosetta Stone CD's out before I left but never got to them. They are on my To Do list for this year, so we agree on that. Good point about forgetting words. How do you translate to French when you can't remember the English. But it will keep our minds working at least. Next reunion in Provence maybe?

  4. Maryl,

    You didn't tell me that Jacques had his way with you!

    1. Well Caryl, you know "What happens in Provence, stays in Provence"!

  5. Bonjour Maryl, I just received an e-mail from my Paris office mentioning your blog. Thank you so so much for your kind words about my work. I've been creating jewelry for over ten years and always with passion and dedication. I love your blog. I am spending half of my time in Los Angeles and the other half in L'Isle sur la Sorgue near Avignon so I will for sure investigate all these exciting recommandations. Hoping to meet you in person very soon, Catherine Michiels

    1. Catherine, How thoughtful of you to respond and acknowledge our blog. I remain an avid fan of your work and am currently on line selecting a few of your pieces. I will keep an eye on your creations that I have connected with in more ways than one. I feel your passion and it speaks to me. Looking forward to connecting with you in person someday in Provence. Best, Maryl