The flair of Provence in a bottle by Steffi Kammerer | 6th September, 2019 | Personalities
For New Yorkers Shirin von Wulffen and Frédéric Fekkai, Aix- en-Provence is a second home. A place where they live in harmony with nature. A spirit they now want to share with the world – with Bastide, their sustainable cosmetics label.
They hadn’t been looking for a house. But the first time they laid eyes on the manor, their minds were made up: They would buy the 17th-century property and restore it. Frédéric Fekkai and Shirin von Wulffen have been spending a good four months of the year in Provence ever since. For the couple and their two children, it’s the perfect antidote to their high-powered lives in Manhattan. That’s where the two met at a dinner with mutual friends in 2003: Frédéric, a Frenchman with Egyptian and Vietnamese roots, used to cut Hillary Clinton’s hair and has earned millions with his salons. And Shirin, who’s German but grew up in Teheran and Virginia, was head of PR for Yves Saint Laurent and Tom Ford. We’ve arranged to meet for lunch on the Upper East Side. The children are at the Lycée Français a few streets away; Shirin took them to school by scooter earlier this morning, as she does every day. While we’re waiting for Frédéric, she tells me that for the first few years after they met, he didn’t show much interest in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. When he wasn’t in Manhattan he was off to Aspen or California; they traveled constantly. But then he turned 50, and suddenly everything changed
He began rediscovering his roots. And seeing everything with new eyes: the indescribable light, the food, the natural landscape. “Absolutely everything,” he says as he takes a seat: “How couldn’t you love it?” His wife adds a telling detail: “When he’s in Provence, his shoulders drop two inches.”
Their ocher-colored house – a “bastide” as the French call the traditional manor houses in these parts – is five minutes outside Aix. Whichever direction you look, there are no neighbors to be seen. Just the endless greenery. The couple gutted the building and spent years lavishly restoring it. They planted fig trees, sowed lavender and verbena; any herb you can think of grows here, along with countless berries. And big fat tomatoes, which the children pick straight off the vine and eat with such relish you’d think they were candies.
“It’s about taking time for the important things in life. Going for a bike ride with the kids. Eating well, getting plenty of sleep. That’s the message.” FRÉDÉRIC FEKKAI
In Aix all the vegetables come from the garden, the fish is bought fresh from the market. Then there’s ratatouille, salt-crusted sea bass, bouillabaisse. Both partners are keen cooks. Provence teaches you a lot, says Shirin. How to be guided by the seasons, including when it comes to food. And to practice moderation. Three good meals a day instead of constant snacking. “Making use of nature is a big part of the Provençal lifestyle.” A lot of her friends in Provence use olive oil on their skin, she says. “You feel different when you’re there. And there’s a creative energy that leads to people doing nice things.” Picasso is buried five minutes away from the house. The first time Shirin came to Aix she was 19 and studying in Paris. Many years passed before she returned, this time with Frédéric. They bought their retreat seven years ago, in the same year that Philip, their second child, was born.
Besides the main house, there’s an equally large guest house – and it’s occupied by friends all summer long. “For us it’s a place where lots of wonderful things happen. Where you hear laughter and smell cooking. That’s the idea behind our brand too,” says Shirin. Bastide, as their label is called, is inspired by nature and its ingredients. Its predecessor, Côté Bastide, was around for 25 years. Shirin and Frédéric had been using the brand’s products for a long time, its candles where all over the house. And they knew the owner wanted to retire. “One day we decided to preserve the brand and rebuild it,” says Shirin. In 2015, they bought the company and became partners in business as well as in their private lives, having already realized they made a great team while they were restoring the house. Right the way down to the upscale packaging, the couple reinvented everything; PR expert Shirin takes care of the website and social media activities. There’s a store in the center of Aix and very soon, there could be one coming to New York’s SoHo district too. Bastide products can be found at Printemps Haussmann in Paris, at Liberty in London and at Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom in the U.S. The couple is also talking to several major department stores in Germany and wants to expand to China soon. “We’re starting to get in on the act all over the place,” says Shirin.
“There’s more to beauty than a cream. That’s part of what Bastide is all about: strengthening your inner self.” SHIRIN VON WULFFEN
The products are made in Provence by carefully chosen specialists who are passionate about producing the finest soaps and lotions in an eco-friendly way – and with no additives. Von Wulffen and Fekkai don’t rule out the possibility of adding household items or furniture to their product range at some point. “But the actual products are secondary,” says Frédéric. “It’s primarily about promoting a special lifestyle. That’s the basis that everything else can grow out of.” Taking time for the important things in life is what the brand aims to communicate. “Going for a bike ride with the kids. Sleeping well, eating well. That’s the message.”
As with any strong brand, there are stories to tell about everything to do with Batide. The idea for the “Rose Olivier” eau de toilette, for instance, was born during lunch one day. Frédéric was sitting on the terrace with his perfumier in Grasse when he spotted an olive tree full of flowering roses. “We need to bottle that!” he announced enthusiastically. “It’s the perfect love story,” adds Shirin. “Masculine and feminine, united for ever, giving each other strength.” The fragrance this image gave rise to is woody and sweet. They kept testing and optimizing it – a bit fresher, a bit less powdery – until they were both satisfied with the result. All the Bastide fragrances, says Shirin, are born from this kind of inspiration. “It’s something we live and breathe and want to let others be part of.”
The eau de toilette that the two of them are wearing, “Verveine du Sud,” combines the fresh scents from their garden that they love: lemon, mint and grapefruit. They’re currently developing a fragrance called “Nue au Soleil,” or “Naked in the Sun.” The name says it all, says Frédéric with a laugh: “I’m free! The world belongs to me!” It’s this special Provence feeling that they want to share. And that’s why a shower gel is so much more than a shower gel: It’s a chance to pause and remember. “There’s more to beauty than a cream,” emphasizes Shirin. “It comes from special moments too, moments of tranquility when you can breathe in deeply and feel.” That’s part of what Bastide is all about too: strengthening your inner self.