The sweet smell of success: Patrick Alès magnificent garden is still going strong

Alès created his stunning garden to grow the plants for his beauty range in the Sixties. Fiona McCarthy gets a private tour.

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There is apparently an Egyptian legend that says that if you plant circles of sycamore trees, and you stand in the middle, you will hear God. So this is exactly what Patrick Alès, founder of the French botanical haircare company Phyto (Latin for plant), did in his breathtaking garden park, La Lienne d'Alès. In the middle of this sits a stone sculpture, made by a local artist, of 'Dedos de Dios' (the two fingers of God), pointing to the heavens. "I haven't heard him yet," laughs Alès, or PA – 'Pay-Ah' – as he is known to his family and 900 employees. "Perhaps it is because they are not yet tall enough," he jests.

If Alès is a spiritual man, then it is this breathtaking garden, located a few hours south of Paris, that surely serves as his altar. For much of his working life, nature has provided Alès with a never-ending driving force; first as a hairdresser to the Parisian beau monde (his salon is still located on the same spot on the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt where he first opened in 1965), where he revolutionised a technique 'the brushing', more of which later; and then as the person who developed and exploited the commercial potential of plants in hair products. "Even today, after working with plants for so many years, I believe that we are only at the beginning of understanding all they can teach us," he enthuses.

Here, set among 380 hectares of ancient woods and oaks, cedars, pines and sequoias planted by Alès, his 'garden' is a calming escape from the hectic outside world. At its heart lies the secret of Phyto's success, an impressive apothecary garden they call the 'Phytotèque' (as in a bibliothèque, but for plants rather than books). Run by his daughter Patricia, this is the company's true chemistry lab (they have a scientific one in Paris, too), complete with buzzing bees and butterflies, where they grow hundreds of different species of plants, all to be used in some way in a Phyto formula. Thirty varieties of basil and every kind of thyme, rosemary, lavender, rhubarb and mint you can imagine; unusual species like Arachis hypogaea (peanut) and pink Malabar spinach, Opium poppies and Anthemis tinctoria, a vivid yellow chamomile used for its hair-dying properties; and exotic (often endangered) plants being nurtured by the family for posterity.

Nearby is a superb rose garden with more than 200 species of roses; close to the 18th- century house (apparently built by the Marquis du Durantis for his mistress), lies the cathédral des sapins – an oval-shaped enclave of pine trees and a little path leading to a statue of Sainte Marie – and a little further away, a whole patch dedicated to the large, elegant silver-green-leaved beauty of the hosta plant, the symbol for the Phyto brand. There are ongoing experiments too, like the 5,000 ginkgo biloba bushes recently planted, extracts of which are used in the Phytocyane shampoo for thinning hair. It was "the only tree to survive the effects of the Hiroshima bomb" says Alès. "I feel there is a magic that lives in that tree."

Nothing goes to waste – the rows of American sweetgum (liquidambars) are harvested every three years for their leaves, which provide a foaming agent for Phyto's shampoos. Every leaf, bud, bark and stem is investigated for potential benefits, and – once distilled in the drying barn – it is sent to the Phyto lab to provide the ultimate benchmark of quality for comparison when the company sources ingredients in bulk for the production each year of their range.

At 82, Alès is living proof (if it was needed, given the legion of Phyto fans and hundreds of clinical studies to back his innovations up), with his own thick locks and the smoothness of his hands, of the magic of plants. Not bad for a young Spaniard who arrived in France in 1937 with his family, escaping their homeland's civil war, with an initial ambition to study architecture. "In the summer of 1946, before I was meant to start university, my father said to me, 'get a job'," Alès recalls in his soft, slightly stilted English. "So I took a job managing the stockroom in the biggest hairdressing salon in Paris at the time – owned by Louis Gervais, with more than 103 employees on the Champs Elysées in Paris – and when I walk in, and it's so nice, the ladies are beautiful, the salon is beautiful, so I told my father to forget architecture, I want to be a hairdresser." His father was shocked. "He said, 'this is work for women, not for you', but I told him that to make ladies more beautiful is the best job in the world. My father said 'OK'."

When he asked Gervais for an apprenticeship, Gervais took Alès to the stockroom, climbed on top of a chair and wiped the top of the shelf with his finger. It was spotless. "He said 'OK, I take you'," laughs Alès. It was also here that Alès first saw the hands of the women who did the shampooing all day, their hands swollen and nails destroyed by chemicals, and the first seeds of his idea for a much more gentle, less harmful range of products was quietly sown. "I started to look at plants, and to see how they grow and survive – I began to think it is possible to look at how to create a synergy with the human body and nature to create something more gentle."

Of course, it is impossible to imagine now, but at the time, everyone told him his botanical lotions and more natural approach to hairdressing would never work. When all the world was fixated with setting a lady's hair in chemicals and rollers in the late 1950s, Vidal Sassoon was on one side of the Channel starting to conjure glamorous new ways of cutting geometrically, and Alès was embracing the natural movement of hair by inventing 'The Blowout', much loved by A-list clients like Catherine Deneuve. "It was purely mechanical – I worked out the way the hair naturally grows and falls, so it went with the movement of the hair from the roots rather than against it," he explains. With it, he invented a round brush that, combined with a hairdryer, allowed hair to be 'brushed' in a way that allowed it to fall in sleek bouncy folds.

It was finding ways to rescue his client Brigitte Bardot's bleached and dried-out locks in the early Sixties that inspired Huile D'Alès, and then came his groundbreaking Phyto 7 which used the synergy of essential oils extracted from seven plants – calendula, sage, burdock, willow, soybean, rosemary and althea – to create an innovative natural hair conditioner. His long-term client Madame Pompidou introduced Alès and his products to Jacqueline Kennedy, who promptly spread fanatical word across the Atlantic. Phyto (or Phytotherathrie as it was called – phyto/plant, thera/care, thrie (from trixos)/hair) was an instant smash on a worldwide scale.

At first, however, Alès and his wife Jacquie – with help from his children Sylvie, Romain and Patricia – were making the products from the kitchen table at home in their house in Provence; this was the early 60s. He had even taken his ideas to L'Oréal but they were not interested, believing the future of haircare lay in chemistry not nature. With a small loan from a friend (and fellow high-profile hairdresser Jacques Dessange), Alès decided to manufacture for himself and started to sell his small collection of 12 products through pharmacies, including one at Saint Louis hospital in Paris, famous for its work in dermatology, from 1969. There he met Professor Vachon. Vachon was the first, in 1974, to confirm through clinical studies the beneficial effects Alès instinctively knew the active plant ingredients were providing in Phyto. Soon, products like the anti-frizz Phytodéfrisant (one of only two French products to be included in the exalted American beauty magazine Allure's Hall of Fame, the other Chanel No. 5) and Phytoplage (the first sun protection haircare) took the world by storm.

For Alès, despite the global success and acclaim (and a few hiccups along the way, including legal wrangles with L'Oréal after they bought Alès's silent partner Dessange's 49 per cent share of the business), it is still the search for 'plant magic' that keeps him going. "I am always looking at new plants and the synergy of how one can reinforce another's properties." The company, with its hi-tech, innovating scientific lab complete with doctors, pharmacists and scientists, works closely with the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Alès remains continually inspired by past botanical medicinal discoveries such as the cancer-treating drug Taxol (derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew), penicillin (from humble fungi) and the cure for leprosy (derived from the oil of the Chaulmoogra nut). He has made various inroads into finding a commercially viable, consumer-friendly solution to hair loss and alopecia – in fact, "we have one clinically proven solution right now, derived from a very ordinary plant used by Egyptian women to encourage the flow of breastmilk, but the smell is too awful," Alès sighs.

Back at La Lienne d'Alès, it's evident that if there are going to be any major scientific breakthroughs, they will be found here, unearthed possibly even by accident, through the Alès family's trial and error and passion for plants. "Trees have a message – whether it's in their leaves or bark, even where some look very simple and ordinary, there is a power there. We are only just skimming the surface of trying to assimilate the synthesis of what nature does. We need to look to it for the answers," he says. "I have just planted 400 more oak trees and I realise that I probably won't see them grow," Alès admits, aware that he is in his twilight years despite his still sprightly acuity and enthusiasm. "When we bought this land, some people had already planted some trees, and I am adding some more; and if they continue for the next generation I will be happy."

For more information, visit phyto.com

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