For twenty-five years French lifestyle brand, Caravane, has collaborated with artisans around the world to create its unique homewares. Claudia Baillie talks to co-owner, Véronique Piedeleu, about the charm of craftsmanship in today’s mass-produced world.
Véronique Piedeleu is a self-confessed treasure hunter. From Europe to Asia and beyond, as the creative force behind the understatedly chic French lifestyle brand, Caravane, hers is an eternal quest to find the most beautiful and innovative textiles and homewares from around the globe. Never-ending curiosity and a determined nature are, she says, a prerequisite of the job. “It’s like being a detective; I love to discover hidden places, to find the most skilled artisans to collaborate with, and to understand their techniques. At Caravane our aim is to share these craftspeople’s knowledge and bring their stories to our customers, with poetry, fantasy and sometimes even a little bit of humour,” she says.
This ambition has seen her travel the world in a bid to connect with makers, and the company now sources silk Ikats (a dyeing technique famed for its vibrant colours and bold patterns) from Turkey, exquisite linens dyed in France, woven homewares from Vietnam and block-printed and embroidered fabrics from India, to name just a few. “India is my favourite playground,” says Véronique. “From north to south, its materials, history and people provide infinite knowledge and possibilities for creation. The artisans there are so talented and happy to share, and meeting them makes my job a real pleasure. But, of course, in India time is on a different scale, and you have to respect and embrace that. It’s really taught me patience; you simply can’t rush handmade work.”
An appreciation of process and how things are made is what gives Caravane’s unique pieces their undeniable charm. “Nowadays, everyone wants things very quickly, and for them to be perfect so it’s rare that people work with their hands,” she says. “It’s so important to keep these arts alive in a mass-produced world, and to accept that maybe a small fault is beautiful. What is really wonderful about something that is handmade, is that you will never see two items exactly the same.”
The granddaughter of an antique dealer, Véronique grew up surrounded by furniture and always had a fascination with textiles. Initially choosing to study business before working in marketing and product development, she then finally set up her own craft supply business with her husband, Jack-Eric. It wasn’t until 2011, having successfully run the company for ten years, that they decided to seek an alternative path. “I needed a place to develop my passion for textiles. The desire had been there for a very long time, but I’d not really had the opportunity to express it,” she says. “My love of interiors meant that I was already aware of Caravane, and I admired the soulful, laid-back vibe of their universe; the way they played with colour, the diversity of the textiles and it’s warm and informal approach to decoration.”
Launched in 1995, Caravane was originally founded by French designer, Françoise Dorget. An extensive traveller, particularly throughout Morocco, she gathered inspiration from around the world before combining those found influences with more cosmopolitan ideas and art to create visibly relaxed designs that were a contrast to the formal pieces popular at the time. “Back then there were only three Caravane stores in Paris,” explains Véronique. “But the company had a strong image as a trendsetter, and the travel aspect was very exciting too.” Although Françoise had been asked to sell many times before, there was, says Véronique, a connection between the pair. “She was confident about our vision and passion, as well as our experience and understanding of the brand’s values. There was definitely a good feeling between us, which was really important.” Now with eleven stores across Europe, including a new location in Coal Drops Yard, the company employs more than sixty people from France, the UK and Denmark. Jack-Eric takes care of the commercial side including global store development, while their daughter Capucine, who joined four years ago, heads up the communication and digital departments. “Caravane is like our child,” laughs Véronique “It’s another member of the family.”
Beyond this European hub, the company’s creative network stretches far and wide. “I’m now familiar with different regions and I have connections in villages and communities that enable me to find the best places for certain pieces to be made,” she explains. “The craftspeople we work with use the materials that nature provides, and many of them have worked with us for more than 10 years so they’ve become friends. For example, the Gati range of table linen is made using block-printing techniques from Jaipur in India, and the family is one of our oldest suppliers. The mother started working with us twenty years ago and her son now handles the production.” A restrictive technique, Véronique worked with the family, adapting the process through many trials to develop astonishing patterns on a large scale. “Every block is placed on the tablecloth or napkin like a painting, and the pressure of the hand is different from one pattern or colour to the next so it’s completely individual,” she says. “There’s very little skill for this sort of thing in Europe. You have to understand the technique, to define the limits and be very considerate towards the craftspeople.” And it’s not just Caravane’s textiles that are designed in this way; innovative homewares are sourced and developed in a collaborative fashion too. “Most of the time macramé is made from cotton, but with our Balbi lighting collection, the inventive angle was to use vegetal fibres, such as leaves or grass,” she explains. “I knew a group of artisans in southern India who specialise in vegetal craft, so together we made a special yarn made from banana fibre. However, they didn’t know any knotting techniques, so we helped them learn this new area of expertise, which at the same time meant they were able to execute our project. The result is lampshades that are beautiful, and complete one-offs.” This preservation and development of skills is also something Véronique feels very strongly about. “In India, the knowhow and creative talent still exists but, even there, it’s disappearing,” she says. “Keeping families in rural areas together, generating work so that they don’t have to head to the big cities, and helping to support them gives us another purpose. It’s about connecting to their rhythm and sustaining a slower pace of life against the tyranny of machines.”
This article first appeared in the winter 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.