Visiting Gaujacq: a tour of Chanel’s camellia farm in CC rain boots

When we think of Chanel we think of tweed, interlaced leather, the ever so iconic double C, black and white, stripes, pearls, and camellias. Gabrielle Chanel’s favorite flower is one of the most recognizable house emblems and the star ingredient of the recently launched sustainable beauty line No. 1 de Chanel. On behalf of Numéro, fashion writer Stephanie Broek traveled to Gaujacq, a small village located in the south-west of France, to visit the maison’s camellia farm.

The story between Chanel and the Basque Coast began in 1915. The war that raged on relentlessly seemed far off while at this famous seaside resort: many wealthy women had fled Paris to seek refuge there and spent quiet, peaceful days at the seaside. Biarritz soon became a summer destination for the aristocracy in la Belle Époque. Gabrielle Chanel was captivated by the sophisticated and stylish atmosphere of Biarritz. It was here that she decided to open her first couture house.

Legend has it that the designer spent many fabulous nights at hotel Le Regina during the roaring twenties. Even now the hotel still has Chanel written all over it. The lobby and marble stairways are decorated with camellia shaped ceiling lamps and the geometric patterns on the floors of the suites also pay homage to her favorite flower. The hotel has a breathtaking view of the Biarritz lighthouse that, because of its black and white colors, looks like it has been designed with solely her in mind.

Just an hour and a half from Biarritz, in the small town of Gaujacq, south-west of France, Chanel has been leading a project dedicated to the conservation of the camellia since 1998. World camellia expert Jean Thoby started the botanical conservatory in the spring of 1986. Nowadays his planetarium houses 2,000 camellia varieties collected all over the world. His collection has become the largest worldwide and includes two seedlings from the mother plants that were supposedly nursed by Gabrielle Chanel herself more than a century ago. 

For the first time in fashion history, Chanel opened the gates of the camellia conservatory for press. On behalf of Numéro, I’m one of the lucky few to be invited. Upon arrival in Gaujacq, I’m offered to change into the chicest rain boots I’ve ever seen: black and white CC-embossed wellies. Similar to the ones creative director Virginie Viard designed for the Chanel Fall/Winter 2022-2023 show (mark my words: these are next season’s It shoes). 

Jean Thoby himself shows us around the garden. The Thobys have been collecting plants for over five generations. Jean’s parents, nursery owners in Nantes, developed more than 200 varieties of camellia. As a child, Jean explains while walking alongside blooming camellia’s ranging from pale pink to maroon red, he learned to sow seeds in the same way he learned to walk. In the eighties he moved to Gaujacq for climate reasons, as the region has regular rainfall throughout the four seasons. Therefore the area’s climate is closest to its original: that of China and Japan.

Nowadays the camellia conservatory is spread across five hectares. Seventy-five botanical camellia species have been safeguarded here, just like the Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena’ cultivar, which has been threatened with extinction. As we stop to admire this beautiful variant, I realize this specific white camellia looks just like the perfect, round camellia used on Chanel packaging. 

The conservatory not only helps safeguard beautiful, fragile biodiversity. The natural characteristics of the flower also inspire Chanel scientists working at the open sky laboratory near the conservatory in Gaujacq. One of the camellia’s fascinating abilities is that neither frost nor water can harm its petals or its leaves. And the more time passes, the more beautiful and strong the plant grows. 

Camellias, in particular the red ones, contain a high concentration of a powerful antioxidant, which has the ability to slow down the onset of senescence, a biological process that sees skin cells lose their vitality (and ergo the skin’s ability to repair itself). These powerful skin repairing properties, which come from its ability to bloom in even the harshest conditions, are the foundation of No. 1 de Chanel. This new holistic anti-aging beauty line consists of skincare, makeup and a fragrance mist. Red camellia extract is at the core of this line and works to prevent and correct the appearance of signs of aging. 

In addition to skincare innovation, this launch sees Chanel step up its game with a more conscious approach to beauty. The No.1 de Chanel line seeks to minimize its environmental impact with sustainably developed formulas that contain up to 97% naturally derived ingredients. Each product is housed in environmentally sound packaging for a reduced carbon footprint. The Revitalizing Cream, one of my personal favorites, is refillable and reduces the cream’s greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated half. All bottles and jars are made from recyclable glass and there are neither outer plastic wrapping, nor inner paper leaflets inside any of the product boxes. 

Just like the camellia itself, suddenly, my skin also appears to have the ability to survive harsh conditions. Halfway through our tour of the farm, temperatures all of a sudden drop as it starts to rain. The Chanel team hands me a huge CC-logo umbrella (that I wish fitted into my suitcase), but it is no match for the heavy rain and strong wind. Back at the hotel to change for dinner, I, to my surprise, find my skin still hydrated and plump. Could it be the effect of yesterday’s facial using No. 1 de Chanel products, and especially the Revitalizing Serum that made my skin (continue to) glow this morning? I guess Gabrielle Chanel was onto something.

Words by STEPHANIE BROEK

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