Musée Souleiado-Charles Demery
39 Rue Proudhon
Tel : +33 (0)4 90 91 08 80
Capturing The Sun...
Hidden away in the narrow streets at the heart of Tarascon, on the banks of the Rhône between Arles and Avignon, is a world-renowned symbol of Provençal tradition. We celebrate the world of Souleiado.
There can be few decorative items so instantly recognisable and so powerfully evocative of the region in which they are produced as the printed cotton fabrics of Provence. Style, as they say, never goes out of fashion. And if you know what you're looking for among the countless products inspired by the genre, just one name stands out from all others: Souleiado.
The origins of what the world has come to regard as some of the most quintessentially French creations will come as something of a surprise. The story begins during the mid-seventeenth century, when the Compagnie des Indes Orientales began to ship brilliantly-coloured printed cotton fabrics from India. The French were amazed by the unprecedented vibrancy of the colours and the intricacy of the printed patterns, which they referred to as calicots, chintz or, more popularly, 'indiennes'. In no time at all the fabrics captured the imagination of wealthy Parisians, the court of Louis XIV at Versailles and were soon not only adorning the homes of the wealthy and influential throughout France but clothing their owners, too. The French textile industry would not take this lying down.
Artists and other workers were lured away from the wool and silk factories of Lyon to staff new ateliers established to produce French indiennes. The effects the ensuing skill-shortages inflicted on long-established companies of international renown were potentially so catastrophic that on October 26th 1686 the King issued a royal decree forbidding the production (and importing) of all indiennes. Remaining stocks were immediately seized and the shippers were forced to seek new markets for their lucrative trade. Predictably, however, this legislation only added to the desirability of the dazzling fabrics, prompting certain privileged individuals simply set up their own manufacturing facilities to satisfy demand among upper echelons of society. The Duc de Bourbon, of Chantilly began production, while the Marquise de Pompadour supported a clandestine atelier in Paris.
In 1759 Louis XV would lift the ban, but by then a sizeable industry had already established itself in Provence (the territory of the Popes, not the King) as rival concerns vied, unsuccessfully, to replicate the quality of the imports. In 1734 the trading company despatched a young employee, Antoine de Beaulieu to Pondicherry to discover the secrets of the Indian production processes. Some months later he returned with his findings, complete with samples from each stage of manufacture. The most elusive factor, the formulation of truly colour-fast dyes, proved be a result of combining vegetable-based pigments with metallic mordant salts and gum Arabic to create truly permanent fabric dyes.
Armed with this crucial knowledge, the home producers were at eventually able to produce the world-class printed cottons which for so long had defeated them. One of the most prominent early manufacturers was Oberkamp, who called his products 'Toiles d'Orange de Jouy', although rivals were in production in Avignon, Aix and Tarascon, stimulating a huge local dye manufacturing industry. The early designs inspired by the local flora of herbs, vines, etc., during the late-eighteenth century were known as 'les bonnes herbes', although more geometrically-inspired patterns soon followed, which in turn were eclipsed by the intricate 'milles raies', 'pois' and 'petits circles' favoured by Napoleon.
The coming of the Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on the industry, as many manufacturers abandoned the carved wood-blocks which had served them so well in favour of machine-based production. Soon the possibilities for wholly new styles were realised and the resulting fabrics took the market by storm, eclipsing the classic indiennes, which then fell out of favour for many years.
Here and there, however, the old processes - working 'à la planche' - continued in a diminishing number of studios of smaller, specialist producers willing to supply a limited demand for traditional costumes. Eventually, just one producer remained, in Tarascon. In 1938 Charles Demery took over management of the family business and set about ensuring its survival and prosperity. One of his first important decisions was a change of name to Souleiado. After the difficult war years (a period also marked by a switch from near-unobtainable vegetable dyes to synthetic products) production increased and the company's product range expanded with the introduction of ready-made skirts, dresses and handbags, etc. Their success meant that supply could no longer keep up with demand, so the decision was taken to move towards mechanised production, transferring the patterns from original pin-registered, hand-cut wooden printing blocks (including any inevitable minor imperfections) onto the copper plates used for the new volume production processes. This decision was crucial in maintaining the authentic spirit of the product, and the same principle is rigidly applied when any further designs are introduced. The range currently comprises hundreds of variations of design and colour combinations, both in the original, vibrant Provençal colours and the newer, more subtle 'fashion' hues. All printing is done on the very finest quality natural cottons, and the modern dyes are every bit as colour-fast as their predecessors. An acquaintance who once owned a restaurant in Aix told me recently that she used Souleiado fabrics for her table-cloths. 'I washed them time after time, in powerful industrial cleaners, yet they never faded.'. Proof indeed of the quality of the product.
In 1997, almost sixty years after he began masterminding the company's remarkable comeback, Chalres Demery finally retired and sold a controlling interest to new owners who are determined to build upon what he had achieved. Today, in addition to the high regard in which the company's products have long been held throughout Europe, the good people of North America have fallen in love with the imagery of Provence, and in particular the one name capable of bringing a little of its warmth into their everyday lives. Souleiado? It's a Provençal word, meaning 'rays of the sun, breaking through clouds after the rain.'. And, as our images shot in the company's original studios (now a museum) reveal, the name says it all.
© Words and pictures Roger
This feature first appeared in everything France magazine Issue 2