A chance meeting with the expat owner of a house in the south of France changed life for ever for Beverly Smart from London. Ever since a school exchange visit at the age of 14 she’d dreamed of living in France and when she saw a photograph of luscious Lagrasse, she knew that was where she wanted to be…
Beverly Smart from London has lived in Lagrasse in the heart of Corbières since 1988. She confides that her love affair with France started at the age of 14 when she went on a school exchange “it was the French éclairs that won me over” she laughs.
With a career in the retail industry in London, a life in France wasn’t something Beverly was working towards. But, when a friend showed her a photograph of a house she had bought in Lagrasse it was a coup de foudre (love at first sight) for Beverly and she knew there and then that there was nowhere else she’d rather be. That weekend she booked a flight to Toulouse, looked for somewhere to buy and a year later moved to Lagrasse. “Even now, after 25 years here, the place still gives me a buzz and I can’t quite believe I live in such a lovely place” she says.
Ask Beverly what she loves most about her life in France and she’ll tell you that this medieval listed village, with its 8th century working Abbey, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards and with a tiny population of 600 people live is very special. “It is situated in a valley surrounded by Mediterranean hillsides full of rosemary, thyme and cyprus trees, the river Orbieu meandering through the village. Lagrasse attracts thousands of visitors each year, some of whom never leave, falling in love with this picture postcard example of rural France and changing their lives to allow them to pursue their dream”.
France Fashion Career
Beverly will also say that being in France has allowed her to pursue dream of becoming a clothes designer. When she arrived she spoke school level French and took a variety of jobs including working as a labourer’s mate and as a photography researcher and cataloguer. Her first love though was always fashion, and in France she was able to achieve her goal to become a designer. With technical training from her dressmaker mother and a love of style and excellence in cutting the cloth, in 1992 Beverly opened her shop in Lagrasse.
Beverly believes that had she stayed in London she would never have made the move from retail fashion to design. “I’ve found that living in another country allows you to do slightly crazy things, something to do with not picking up on all the verbal and non-verbal communication in a foreign language. My French is very good, but there’s a cultural and very subtle undertone that I don’t think I’ll ever get. There is also a very different attitude to clothing in France. The first thing most French women (of my generation anyway) do when they look at my clothing is to turn it inside out and look at how well it’s made. They are universally interested in fashion, the Prêt-à-Porter and Haute Couture shows have always been featured on the news in France. Most women have a dressmaker they can call on to get a ready-to-wear garment fit them like it was made–to-measure, but for a fraction of the price”.
These days her stylish designs are sought out though it hasn’t always been an easy road. “Setting up a business in France certainly sorts out the men from the boys! It’s probably easier now than it’s ever been, but pretty heavy on administration”. Support has always been there though she stresses. For example, to encourage the couture industry in France the Government funds further education for couturiers and stylists so they can improve not only their technical skills, but marketing and management too. “I’ve benefitted from this over the last 5 years and it has been a huge confidence builder for me” adds Beverly
“The Lagrasse clientele is seasonal and sophisticated” she says and it’s that first aspect of her customer base that allows her to give full sway to her design objectives. Her shop opens from March to November leaving her free to travel for the rest of the year. Beverly has visited Cape Town every year since moving to Lagrasse to source jewellery to compliment her designs. Working with designer-led township women’s groups she says “as someone who earns her living making handmade clothing the handmade and social aspect is very important to me”.
“I go to Paris and London a couple of times a year to soak up the atmosphere and source fabrics. Both cities are so different, but represent the two important influences in my design … French chic and the British desire for individuality”. Her Summer fashion shows are hugely popular with local residents some of whom act as models for her annual Autumn/Winter collection. “They wear my collection straight off the peg, none of this fitting to the models, I want to show how my clothing looks on all shape, sizes and ages”.
For ex-Londoner Beverly Smart, life in Lagrasse has been every bit the joy she hoped it would be.
Website and contact details: www.beverlysmart.com