To celebrate Maison Balzac arriving to FABRIC Home our Directors Jacki Bresic and Martin Andrews take us behind the scenes with the designer, owner Elise Pioche. Read on to be inspired by Elise's passionate story behind Maison Balzac.
Image: Screenshot from the interview with Elise Pioch of Maison Balzac
Q: We love hearing about the journey of how our partners start their brands. What led you to start Maison Balzac, any life changing moments, or clear intuitive forces at play?
How did Maison Balzac come to be?
Elise: I’m French and when I started Maison Balzac, I had been in Australia for at least 8 years and was really missing my homeland, my parents, my friends, the lifestyle and the familiar scents. I told myself that I only had two options; the first one was to flyback to France, which certainly would have been the easier way out (but I usually don’t like to take the easy route). My second option was to bring France to Australia.
Candles became a very personal way for me to surround myself with my five favourite fragrances. Those familiar notes and fragrances from home. I could pretend I was back in France. I also thought by sharing my story it would make me talk about my life in France and talking about it would help me keep the memories alive. So overall I would say it is out of nostalgia for France that Maison Balzac started.
|Q: Amazing! Working in the industry for such a long time, what were the first steps you took to launch Maison Balzac?
Elise: My husband and I are doers and I kept on telling him, ‘I really want to start making candles!’ At the time I was still at Belinda buying, so I had a very busy schedule. My husband suggested that I start to try making my own perfumes and fragrances at night after work or on the weekends. I thought that was a really good idea but because I was so busy, I never had time to start. One night, my husband dropped on the dining table a wax melter, some soy wax and five little bottles of perfume and he said, “now you have no excuses – tonight you start your first candle.” I really didn’t have any excuses now because everything I needed to start was right in front of me on my dining table!
At the time, we owned a weatherboard church from 1880 by the Hawkesbury River. I set myself up in the room that used to be the altar where people got married or christened. It had a beautiful energy with big windows and that’s where I started melting my first half litre of wax, cooling it down and lighting it in the evening to check if we liked it. Everyone at work knew I was doing this as a hobby, so eventually asked the store manager if she could put my candles in the store and to tell me what people are saying about it. In the evening, she would tell me that every customer was like ‘what is that scent? It reminds me of holidays!”
So, I guess I used the corner store and the Belinda store as a customer lab. In the end, I narrowed down to five fragrances. Hats off to my husband, because he really helped me ‘get onto the horse’ and now I’m running!
Q: Yes! We all need someone that gives us that gentle push!
Elise: Yes, a little nudge!
Q: So, the move from Hermes Paris to Australia as a buyer and then to your own brand sounds like a movie that needs to be made.
Can you share how you got the strength to leave the “dream job” of any girl in fashion to explore a different path?
Elise: Yes, definitely! I feel like I have done this twice in my career. The first time was at Hermes when I told them I was going to resign. They thought I was crazy and kept asking me if I was sure of my decision because no one resigned from Hermes! I was 100% comfortable with my decision and I did not necessarily want to leave Hermes but I wanted to leave France and I had this irrepressible desire to go explore the world. As a matter of fact, before that time I had never taken a flight, I didn’t have a passport, I was 28 and it was my first time out of the country. I knew it was a bold move - I didn’t know anyone in Australia and I had such a good job at Hermes. So, just to be safe, when I landed in Australia I started working them again. For a bit of familiarity.
Then later in my career, I took the same leap of faith, when I left Belinda. I was the Head Buyer of International and Domestic Brands and have worked for five years hand-in-hand with the owner. I learnt so much from her. She was my Australian mother and so I was leaving a family again.
Now that I am 40 something, I look back to my 20’s and 30’s and the decisions I made. At the time they didn’t feel risky, I didn’t have a shadow of a doubt but now I realise how brave I was. I always think to myself, ‘why am I so brave with these decisions’ because in my life outside of work, I’m not that brave. I’ve come to realise that it's because of the amount of love that I have received from my family. I feel like nothing can happen to me because I am moving through life with a safety net of love and my family gave me the confidence to do anything. This is something I am trying to pass onto my daughter as well because the adventures I’ve had in my life as a result have been amazing. I hope one day she will have the strength to make brave decisions and never sit on her laurels.
Interestingly, and it’s related, the other night I had this dream that I was on this wagon. The tracks were never ending and I was set up for life. I was at Hermes until I was 65, retired with a lot of money.. .and that really scared me because I love the unexpected, the quirk and eccentricity. I couldn’t be in a job where every day is the same and I’m so fortunate that Maison Balzac gives me this every day.
Q: That’s phenomenal. Everything you say is the ultimate philosophy of just living your life and getting to the end of your life and think ‘‘Yes! Life was well lived and I didn’t just settle for what was comfortable.’
As soon as you get out of that comfort zone and feel a sense of fear, that’s when life comes alive and the energy you have today is from everything that you have experienced.
|Elise: What I’ve also learnt along the way, which I’m sure you have also experienced, is that when you put yourself out there, someone will always notice you, will come chat to you, and you will end up having the greatest meetings that you’ve ever had and with new people who will become your best friends. If you stay in your corner, then you will only stay within your local community.
Q: There is so much life out there, and so many people we have the chance to bond and communicate with. I think that’s why I feel so blessed to work with the Australian and New Zealand community. Because like you said, we get to be with so many like-minded, creative and talented people.
On a side note, I think your daughter has nothing to worry about, because that love and support network you provide her is just phenomenal.
|Elise: Yes! Thank you!
Q: I loved hearing about the slow process you can take without rushing to develop products. One of our mantras at Fabric is slow is smooth, smooth is fast - to remind us to not rush in.
Can you share a little more on this, and any other areas you bring this approach into being?
Elise: I just don’t like things with a thick frame. I like things that are fluid and to go with the human pace and not the computer pace. That’s why I have never had a business plan, we don’t have a collection plan either. We go with our gut feeling and everyone in our team is very sensitive and in tune. It’s like we have an antenna for what is happening in the world. So I would hate to have a year planned out exactly that blocks me from my own creativity. I think the same process happens every time you develop a new relationship with the maker. You must go at their pace – some of them are perfectionists’, others like to rush things. So, I like to go with them (fast or slow) but I will never sign off on something just because I have a deadline. And that’s what I call a slow process. A bit gentler to humankind and creativity.
I’d love to know though, can you tell me what you mean by ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast’?
Q: Ok so, there are two energies which we use. This one is when you have a situation, and everyone is rushing– that’s when you make mistakes. Instead, if you take your break and think ‘slow is going to make me smooth’ because you would have thought of everything that could have possibly happened. And, smooth will make you really fast because you have taken the time to slow it right down and get it right the first time round.
For example, we have just gone into lockdown in New Zealand and instead of rushing right into it, everyone took the day off and we had a moment to think about everything, to take a breath, be with nature and pause. By doing this we are ‘sharpening the sword’. Which is another saying we like to use at FABRIC. It’s an old adage which compares two people attempting to cut down a tree. The first person starts hacking away at the tree repetitively for 8 hours whilst the other person spends two hours just sharpening the sword before cutting the tree down in one stroke. This period of ‘sharpening’ is when we think, take a second and don’t rush into anything.
|Elise: I love that. You are right.
Q: We really try hard to live these every day. It’s hard sometimes as we have so much energy like you. But we just know from so many lessons the past has taught us, to take a step back and go slow.
|Elise: I agree. It’s a learning process though isn’t it. It’s almost a painful process to go slow sometimes but in the long term we know that it is better for everyone to take the extra little moment to think.
Q: To hear that every item of Maison Balzac is quality controlled by your team in Sydney is inspirational.
Can you tell us a little about this? Or any other things that you thought as a business owner, “I really want this to happen” even though initially it might not have felt feasible.
Elise: In the beginning, when the business was starting, of course I was doing everything myself. After a while, we started introducing new people and one of my new employees at the time, Laura Anderson, was absolutely amazing. She was even more detailed orientated than me. She was with us for four years and she was responsible for making sure everything was packed and sent the right way.
Then as the business has grown for every person we hire in a management role, we hire two more people in the dispatch team as we don’t want to pass this job onto an external company. We do this because I know the first hand amount of effort, thought and love that my makers and I have put into designing every product. It would be a shame that the last 5% (which is delivery) was messed up for the whole team. So, every candle is handled, labelled and checked by the team with gloves. We put it in the box, seal it and ship it off. That way we know the way we talk to people is identical to how we imagine it and we don’t take the chance of giving that responsibility to anyone else.
Q: I mean that just sends so much emotion through me because it’s so perfect and so much love all the way through.
What an incredible brand and we are so lucky to be partners.
Q: Your love for colour! How did this begin, grow and how do you foster it?
We love that the candles and the glassware are designed in the same colours - why and how did you choose these particular pantones?
Elise: It’s so funny because I only ever wear black. Since I was 16 years old I’ve just dressed in black. When it comes to my range, my candles are also very monochromatic as well with black writing. With the boxes, I thought the story I’m trying to tell is not a black and white - I know they had to be in colour because that was the narrative. My world in my head is childish and colourful – it’s a children’s book and I wanted this to be apparent.
It’s also interesting because working at Belinda, in a showroom, when I was dressed in colour, that would really distract me from what I’m looking at and all the choices I had to make. So, I thought by being very neutral with myself, I allowed my eyes to be more perceptive to what’s around me - it did really work for me. So, when it came time to choose glass colours, I did the same thing as a buyer would and worked hand in hand with my maker. There was a collection of 50 possible colours I asked to see the warmest and the coolest tones, out of those colours, I thought about how they would look in the store, how they would merchandise and then chose the colours that worked best together.
My Husband and I also love buying old, derelict houses and decorating and often, I get asked, “but what is your style?”. Unfortunately, I struggle to answer this because I put things together and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, I get rid of it. It’s the same with our range, I’m so happy with how it works together. It really is a big story of how I worked backwards to get to the colours we have today.
Q: In the store we are noticing that when we are merchandising all the colours together, it is going with beautiful books and then the clothes are coming in and it looks like the most beautiful sense of colour.
Elise: Amazing! And, also another point in your question was when the glassware reference colours within the wax candles. This is really interesting and purposefully designed.
I really like the concept of Synaesthesia. It is a medical condition that occurs in people that have had trauma to the brain, such as a car accident. It is something that happens in their brain where suddenly all the sensors are linked together so when they eat chocolate for example, they will see blue or when they listen to music, they taste a certain flavour. I like to play with peoples’ minds and have the same item in 2 or 3 materials and you will see a lot of this coming in future collections. I just want customers to be really intrigued by this concept and question if they can touch it. Or even in the current collection, question if it's wax or marble?
So yeah, having a volute candle holder in pink which matches with the pink wax, I am in heaven! Because one is opaque, one is transparent, but they actually link which connects your mind!
Q: I think the one thing about your brand which we have grown to love is that it touches every sensory element which we love.
We recently learnt the first glassware item was the carafe - how did this come to be?
Elise: When I was able to, I would go back to France every year and go to flea markets and antique stores. I’ve always surrounded myself with objects that had a previous life.
I’d noticed that in France a lot of the carafes were clear with a little glass over it. Every time I asked, I was told it’s an old tradition – people would keep these on their bedside table with water, so if they are thirsty at night, they have water nearby but the dust wouldn’t settle into the water. I thought wow (!) I just love this and want to bring this concept back into fashion. It’s a very old school and a clever way of staying hydrated at night.
I called Laura at night, who was holding down the fort in Australia and I said, ‘Laura we need to make a carafe with a glass!’ I was at the market and I took a photo of one and sent it to her. She loved the idea and suggested we modernise it but make it super minimal so that in 100 years’ time, if another person saw my carafe on a stool , she would think it travelled safely in time!
At the time I wanted to sell the glass and the carafe separately, my glass maker delivered it to us with the glass over it as that was originally how we designed it. I love it when makers steer away from the brief or make mistakes because that’s when it ends up being better than what I wanted. So, I went with the flow with my glass maker and with Laura - the carafe really did come about from real teamwork.
It’s also amazing the feedback we get on this item, I never thought people would take it as a symbol of loving your home and loving year health. I’ve met people who say I’ve gifted your carafe to 6 of my friends and now it’s my turn to get one for themselves. I’m super proud to have brought this carafe back in fashion because I see other versions and we each have our unique approach to it and well no one has really copied us which is great. We will forever be the first ones to create a carafe like this. On a side note we actually have another category coming in April next year. I’m so excited about it and I think it will be the new carafe, but it isn’t glassware. So, it was just an idea that felt right and has become a staple!
Q: It’s such an important life lesson as well – the ‘mistake’ of the maker who put the glass on top translates into life when we think ‘that’s not how it’s supposed to be’ but if you take a step back… that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.
Elise: The oil burner was supposed to be a glass and a dish that you can remove, but the makers glued it together and we thought that it feels complete, stable, and safe and said ‘okay, your mistake – we adore it!”
Q: Yes, if we can learn to have that attitude more in life and not just with your product!
Q: If you have to pick one piece, what would it be and why?
Elise: No, it's easy, it’s Mr Snail. I just really love my little snail. To start with, it’s a recycled product, which sits really well with me. I’m a big lover of nature – so to know we have taken a by-product and made something else with it makes me happy.
Also, even though it’s an incense holder, without the incense it's actually a decorative piece that can be displayed all the time which I love. I also love the pace of the snail. I feel like in the last few years we all feel like we have lived in our own shell because of COVID, so he is just the epitome of how I feel now.
|Q: We love the snail too! Love the idea that it’s a great reminder to chill out a bit also!!
Elise: Yes and have a laugh too!
Q: Yes, 100%! Where would we be without laughing the stresses away – I have no idea!
Q: If you want our readers to know one thing about Maison Balzac, products, or business, what would that be?
Elise: Hmmm, I know it doesn’t sound very business minded but I really believe in kindness and that is how I’ve managed my business from day one. I just love people and always take a moment to ask how they are and to check on their family. I find that kindness always wins and it’s just good for the soul. So I would say kindness and authenticity are the two things that make Maison Balzac what it is. It's also personally very hard for me to have to be firm or tough because it’s just beyond me – it’s just really not me. But I like to think our way is paying off, it's proving successful because we are where we are as a result of that kind of philosophy.
Q: Beautiful! I’m such a firm believer in what we give out, we get back. It’s also important to remember that everyone has something going on in their lives and they may not show it. But if you are being kind in that one moment you can really brighten someone’s day.
Well, Elise, I’ve literally had an absolute ball talking to you because I just think you are incredible!
Elise: You too! I mean what you do as well is so incredible, and we are so proud to work with a team who is so dedicated and in line with who we are. It’s a real honour to work with you guys!
Image sources : MAISON BALZAC Instagram (@maisonbalzac)