Listen to Style Dictator Fekkai: Beauty Starts in Provence

Raindrops on roses, dappled sunlight on toile poufs, lavender sachets, painted furniture with curly bits … French Provincial is back! Aren’t you relieved? After all, it’s timeless and classy, even if you’re not. Printed toile is even having a fashion moment (e.g. Neal Decker totes at Bird in Brooklyn (718-768-4940) and Alice Roi’s fall 2001 Daumier prints at Kima Zabete on Greene Street). What’s so great about F.P.? And what exactly is it? I asked Provence native Frédéric Fekkai to shed a little lumière on the sujet .

Describing Frédéric Fekkai as French Provincial is a bit like referring to Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II of England as Betty Windsor. Nevertheless, Monsieur Fekkai, the charming and wildly successful international coiffeur , whose salon is subtitled ” Beauté de Provence ,” is insanely proud of his roots (‘scuse the pun). He gets positively lachrymose with nostalgie when he recalls the lyrical landscape and happy paysans of his birthplace. “It’s such heaven–everything looks like a Pagnol movie,” waxed Monsieur Fekkai rhapsodically to moi , on a recent visit to his packed and beautifully run salon.

He illustrated his points by flipping through his recently published book, A Year of Style (definitely to be confused with the best-selling A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle). It’s a seasonal beauty guide based on Monsieur Fekkai’s theory that the beautiful, naturally chic folk down in Provence are only beautiful and chic because of their proximity to the gorgeous, sun-dappled simplicity that is Provence–i.e., Nature = simplicity = chic people. I suppose that this would explain why individuals from less bucolic regions–e.g., Madonna (Bay City, Mich.) and myself (Reading, England)–are a bit rough around the edges.

But back to Monsieur Fekkai and his musings. “The earth is red,” he said, “and the mimosa, the jonques, genets, lilacs, lavender, the countryside around Aix is … magnifique .” Frédéric’s favorite thing to do is rent a bicycle, strap on a baguette and take a twirl down the route de Cézanne . Fancy a sojourn? Frédéric recommends the Villa Gallici in Aix-en-Provence (33-4-42-23-29-23). This is the city where the young Frédéric, at a salon called Laeticia Orsoni, perfected the rigorous, graduated hair-roller insertions that were the foundation of his hairdresser’s craft.

“Teased chignons–which I still love to do–grand marcels, mexicans, macaroons: These were the styles at the time,” recalled swarthy Frédéric, who told me he was 42. If my knowledge of hair-style history is correct, this would put Frédéric at about 10 at the time of the over-sized chignons, making him something of a teazy-weazy Mozart. Whatever! He’s a damn good hairdresser, and très gentile to both clients and staff, and that’s what counts!

I asked Monsieur Fekkai to prescribe a look for summer 2001, and being the generous mec that he is, he gave me two surprisingly un-Provençal styles:

1. A Siouxsie Sioux: F.F. has taken the hair of the iconic punk songstress and, after a bit of what he calls revu et corrigé (rough translation: “adopting and adapting”),transformed it into a gamine, cheeky, asymmetrical ‘do with deep bangs. See current it girl Camellia Clouse, model-girlfriend of D.J. Mark Ronson.

2. A Jean Seberg A Bout de Souffle pixie cut. See also Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby . (Both cuts run from $80 to $135 at Frédéric Fekkai, 15 East 57th Street, 753-9500.)

Warning: Frédéric may not be able to cut your hair himself (as reported in Page Six, he’s not doing Leona Helmsley anymore, so don’t expect him to do you)–he’s trop occupé . The busy entrepreneur divides his time between his salon, the totally un-Provençal Trump International Hotel & Tower building, where he spends time with heiress Libbet Johnson, his salon and a townhouse on East 63rd Street. I’m surprised more girls don’t shack up with their hairdressers; it makes so much sense.

I departed from Maison Fekkai laden with style and travel tips, but none the wiser about the definition of French Provincial. In desperation, I called John Waters. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Polyester , Mr. Waters’ epic about the heartwarming though appalling Fishpaw family. Beginning with its French Provincial theme song (written by Debbie Harry and sung by Tab Hunter), this movie both celebrated and derided the American un-chic, un-rustic version of French country style and its gooey, faux antique-y manifestation as the ultimate taste signifier to the aspirant lower-middle classes.

If you’ve seen Polyester , you will doubtless recall the bedroom suite of creamy, congealed-vomit-colored French Provincial furniture belonging to the heroine of the movie, suburban housewife Francine Fishpaw (played by the now-deceased, magnificent Divine). Director Waters happily reminisced, by phone from Baltimore, about that furniture and its role in the film’s success. “It’s the only movie I’ve done where the couch got a laugh!” said Mr. Waters. “The location was suburban Baltimore. When we finished shooting, we arranged all that nasty furniture on the front lawn of the Fishpaw house, and the neighbors bought every last piece! Baltimore is just a little bit behind.”

Set designer Vincent Peranio recalled purchasing this lovely suite when he spoke to me recently by phone from his Baltimore aerie. “Francine’s furniture was from a store which specialized in posh furniture, called Shofer’s on Charles Street in South Baltimore. It had dabs of gold and little French feet–but by the 1970’s, any antique repro was called French Provincial.”

How can you get the F.P. look?

1. If you are a kitsch queen and you want the puss-colored 1970’s stuff, head to the Salvation Army store at 22 Quincy Street in Brooklyn (718-622-5686).

2. ABC Carpet and Home: The fourth floor is groaning with F.P in all its different incarnations: rustic cherrywood farm tables ($2,595), bonnet-topped armoires ($5,795), trundle-beds and sleigh-beds ($2,590), and ladderback dining chairs ($595) (881 Broadway, 473-3000).

3. Pierre Deux is the epicenter of the French Provincial revival–i.e., they sell toile. Take the limited-stop M1 or M2 bus up to the store at 870 Madison Avenue, on the corner of 71st Street (570-9343). Rush to the second floor and get a load of the Delice de Quatre Saisons Toile de Jouy fabric in yellow and red (we’re talking egg yolk with ketchup): $85 per yard and abso-bloody-buggering gorgeous. One yard (55 inches wide) will easily cover a Louis chair–with enough left over for a head scarf. F.Y.I.: the Two Pierres are pushing up the marguerites, and the company is now owned by Monsieur and Madame Cointreau, who also own Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. How classy is that? Their logoed Cordon Bleu paraphernalia can also be purchased at the Madison Avenue Pierre Deux.

4. Girls on a Francine Fishpaw budget, barrel down to the basement of Century 21, where polyester toile place mats are $2.97 and napkins are $1.69: choose from black, blue or sage (22 Cortlandt Street, between Church and Broadway, 227-9092).

For me, Provence signifies far more than just ditzy wall coverings and fragrant bicycle rides: It’s the legendary Camargue, that swampy southernmost area of Provence, peopled by tempestuous gypsies and butch gauchos riding white horses. Though I have never actually been there, the idea of the exotic Camargue has always had me in its thrall. While other boys were building model airplanes–and Frédéric was inserting graduated hair rollers–I was constructing torrid fantasies about running away to live with those tough, hirsute gypsies (and that’s just the women!).

These fantasies were ignited by a picture I had on my wall of Brigitte Bardot, draped in adoration at the feet of virile Camargue gypsy guitarist Manitas de Plata. Who is Manitas de Plata? Diana Vreeland once said, “Brigitte Bardot’s lips made Mick Jagger’s lips possible.” Well, I’m here to tell you that M. de Plata’s testosterone-fueled, gravelly-voiced wailings and passionate strummings made the Gypsy Kings possible. Voilà !

P.S.: Re that photograph of Brigitte Bardot and Monsieur de Plata on my bedroom wall: Can you guess with which of these two 1960’s icons I was enjoying a dubious identification? The first person to e-mail me the correct answer (at simonsays@observer.com) will win a Manitas de Plata CD entitled La Camargue de Manitas . Don’t forget to include your address and phone number. ¡Olé!

Listen to Style Dictator Fekkai: Beauty Starts in Provence