“I built my little paradise here after all,” says the fashion designer Eric Bergère, who is wearing a red-and-navy patterned shirt almost as vibrant as the dresses he creates. We are sitting in the light-filled kitchen in his mazet (a traditional Camargue villa) near the centre of Arles, a city in the south of France with cobblestones, grandiose crumbling buildings and a rich cultural history. On the horizon – past Bergère’s overflowing garden – we can see apple orchards and forests of Aleppo pines and poplars.
Bergère had a storied career in Paris, where he was a creative director at maisons including Hermès, Lanvin, Burton and Smalto. But he decamped to Arles permanently in 2016 to launch his self-titled womenswear brand (although he goes to Paris once a week for meetings). It was a move motivated by a desire for the peaceful lifestyle afforded by Arles. Just 30 minutes from the beaches of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer the city is surrounded by the rugged beauty of the Camargue, where wild horses and buffaloes graze, flamingoes flock and the sun rarely dims.
His relocation was a gradual process enabled by the launch in 2001 of the new tgv train line between Paris and Nîmes. “The tgv allowed me to get here in under three hours and escape from Paris and its negative qualities: pollution, noise, overcrowding,” says Bergère. “First I would come here to relax over weekends. But, little by little, these weekends of relaxation, and the productive work I would do when I was relaxed, convinced me to leave Paris for Camargue.”
Bergère is one of a clutch of designers and makers who in recent years have escaped the stress of Paris for this rustic corner of France – and, in the process, have started to revive local manufacturing. Some are originally from here; others, such as Bergère, are not native. Yet all have been captivated by Arles’ way of life.
As such, this city of 53,000 people is an increasingly attractive place for fashion people wanting a break from “fashion”. Last month its fashionability peaked (if only for a moment) when Gucci chose Arles as the site for its Resort show, unveiling its latest collection against the backdrop of the ancient Roman necropolis, the Alyscamps. For two days, editors and buyers sipped rosé on the terrace of the Nord Pinus hotel and bought fragrances from La Parfumerie Arlésienne, one of Arles’ most elegant boutiques.
Arles may be quiet, sunny and charming, but these qualities alone are not enough to entice designers and craftspeople. What Arles has is culture. It was Vincent Van Gogh’s short-lived home from 1888 to 1889 (and the place in which, many critics say, he did his most inspired work), and since 1970 it has hosted Les Rencontres d’Arles, the international photography festival. Its cultural scene has become even more vibrant thanks to the work of Maja Hoffman, who in 2014 founded Luma Arles, a non-profit organisation that funds art projects and training.
There is fashion in Arles’ blood too. Provence has a long history of producing bright patterned Provençal fabrics (dating back to the 17th century) and denim (dating back to the 16th century). And the women of Arles, called les Arlésiennes, are flamboyant dressers, known for their billowing skirts in shades of pink and yellow.
Bergère’s love affair with Arles goes back to 1981, when he was introduced to the town by the couturier Christian Lacroix, one of Arles’s most famous natives, and Lacroix’s wife Françoise. “I was working with Françoise at Hermès. They took me to Arles for the costume festival, a special moment where Arlésiennes parade in the streets dressed in their most beautiful finery. It’s like a giant fashion show that takes over the whole town.”
From a studio in one corner of his home, Bergère and his assistant Quentin Ravau design and make cheery womenswear items including what they call “bochi” dresses. These bright poncho-like frocks can be belted or not and come in short tunic versions or long like a djellaba (a loose-fitting robe from the Maghreb). Many of Bergère’s clothes – including various pieces made from Provençal fabrics – tap into the region’s heritage. Yet the bochi style is unique to Bergère. “They are good for the beach because they protect from the sun, the sand and the wind and can also be worn for swimming,” he says.
His designs are sold in Dou Bochi, a shop he and his friend Antoine Rambourg opened in the centre of Arles in 2017. The dresses are displayed alongside products from other designers: sandals, ceramics, jewellery, tableware and blankets similar to the ones used to keep horses warm (the Camargue region is horse-mad). The bochis – which are not sold online or in other shops – appeal to fashionable Arlesiennes and tourists. “We sell to a lot of Belgian and Swedish visitors,” he says.
A short walk from Dou Bouchi, past Place de la République, takes you to Maison Rucher. When monocle visits this unusual checker-floored boutique, its owner Christophe Campagnola is showing a leather belt to a young British man on holiday with his fiancée. Campagnola is originally from Grenoble (two hours inland) and he too worked in Paris for many years, running European marketing at brands including Yohji Yamamoto, Atelier Dupont and Bally. But he had tired of the fashion scene and, in 2014, decided to move south and start afresh. “Arles is the city that has been able to cross centuries without becoming wrinkled. Its Roman architecture mixed with contemporary cultural projects like Luma attracted me,” he says.
Campagnola’s two passions are bees (yes, you read that right, bees: he studied bee-keeping in Montpellier) and craftsmanship. Although they seem unrelated they have one thing in common: the population of bees is decreasing almost as quickly as small Provence clothing workshops are shuttering. Maison Rucher champions these two interests. The business makes honey, candles, linen and clothing for men and women, including tomato-red coats with big hoods and linen cardigans. Everything is produced locally: the jackets and blankets are sewn at the Atelier de Confection Nîmois. The quantities are not big but it’s an important gesture. “I wanted to make a collection that would give a hand to the bees as well as the workshops experiencing difficulties,” says Campagnola. “I wanted to showcase the best French know-how.”
Despite Provence’s history of textile production there is only one company that can still produce Provençal fabrics (which are also known as Indienne cloth because they were historically imported from India to the port of Marseille before the French started producing them). That company, Les Olivades, was founded in 1818 and today is run by father-son team Jean-François and Philippe Boudin. The business, which is based in the foothills of Alpilles just outside Arles, has maintained its relevance by collaborating with artists and designers such as Frenchwoman Nathalie du Pasquier and US-Italian fashion label Woolrich.
Elsewhere in the region, though, young companies are doing their best to revive production of other textiles. A 30-minute drive northwest of Arles, past reed-filled wetlands, takes you to Nîmes. There, in a pint-sized workshop, Guillaume Sagot, Anthony Dubos and Clement Payen run Ateliers de Nîmes, which was launched in 2014 in a bid to revive the city’s long tradition of denim-making. The origin of denim is disputed yet the most widely accepted narrative is that Nîmes is the birthplace. French protestants started making the fabric in the 16th century but most of them fled France after Louis xiv’s Edict of Nantes in 1685. Some factories survived but, by the early 20th century, all production had moved to Asia and other parts of Europe.
“I was working in a communications agency and didn’t like my job or my life in Paris,” says Sagot, who is from Nîmes. So he returned to Provence and learnt how to weave, in Roquebrune, and then how to cut a pattern, in Marseille, before co-founding this venture. “We had to start from scratch because the know-how has gone. There have not been any denim weavers in Nîmes for at least a century”, says Sagot. He now leads the small team who weave the denim and design the jeans.
They produce about 1,000 pairs per year, although soon, when they acquire two more wooden weaving machines, that will increase to 5,000. They are sold in Bonjour, Faubourg and By La Garçonne in Nîmes and in a few shops in Paris. “It’s not an easy job,” says Sagot. “But I like being based here. It takes me two minutes to walk to my atelier and 30 minutes to cycle to the beaches of Le Grau du Roi or La Grande Motte.”
On the way back into Arles, just before you reach the small seaside town of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, you will find another Parisian defector applying a similarly fastidious approach to leather. Christophe Berti was one of the first artisans to return to this part of France after working in the capital. He works from an atelier near the entrance to the village of Fourques, with two big dogs at his side and Europe 1 radio on full blast. His prized products are saddles made for gardians, the famed Camargue horsemen; he also turns out exquisite handbags, bracelets, belts and dog collars.
There is something Hermès-like about the precise white saddle-stitching accenting his wares. That makes sense: after undertaking leather-making training at l’Abbée-Gregoire school in Paris, he spent years working at Hermès. “During this period in Paris I refined my technique and worked with the most prestigious items,” says Berti, who is from Aubagne in Provence but now lives in Arles. Soon he will be moving his production. Every summer he temporarily sets up his workshop inside Le Gardian, an iconic shoe shop in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. There, he makes his leather masterpieces in front of crowds of eager tourists. Berti left Paris in 2002 and, like the small community of fashion folk who are gathering around him in this little patch of France, he clearly doesn’t regret his decision. “I’ve been a lover of Camargue since my childhood. I’m passionate about horses and the wild and hard nature of the region,” he says. “Living in a city like Arles which is strongly rooted in tradition has inspired me in my professional life. I feel like I can leave a legacy on this city.”
To stay: Hotel Nord Pinus In its heyday this Arlesien institution hosted the likes of Picasso and Chaplin, and Helmut Newton famously photographed Charlotte Rampling in its dining room. Proprietor Anne Igou has revived it spectacularly.
To eat: La Chassagnette Chef Armand Arnal has earned a Michelin star for his vegetable-focused cooking.
To drink: L’ouvre Boîte Natural wines and delicious snacks served on a sunny terrace.
To get there: Catch the TGV from Paris to Arles via Avignon, or fly into Marseille.