A piece of Tibet in the Cotswold's
by Jayne Howarth
Jayne Howarth talks to Alain Rouveure about his passion for bringing us traditional crafts from Tibet and Nepal, and his commitment to Fair Trade
“You shouldn’t use people to produce cheap goods so you can have a great life here. The Dark Ages are over; trade has to be fair.”
So says Alain Rouveure, founder of Alain Rouveure Galleries, an Aladdin’s Cave of hand-crafted Tibetan rugs, jewellery, art, textiles, figures and paintings.
“I believe in treating people the way I like to be treated,” he says. “And I know what I do makes a difference to those who are living out there and making these incredible pieces.”
Alain’s galleries in Todenham, near Moreton-on-the-Marsh, in the Cotswolds, really are a treasure trove of unusual goodies, including ethically-sourced antiques and specially-commissioned pieces.
His suppliers are small, artisan craftsmen and women: jewellers, rug makers, artists. Everything is chosen by Alain, whose exquisite eye for the remarkable and the authentic ensures that customers to his sprawling shop can choose from an array of astonishing handmade pieces.
He travels to the Himalayas twice a year and has done so for more than 30 years so that he can source and commission items of Tibetan, Bhutan and Sikkim origin.
He uses more than 200 suppliers, all of whom are individual craftsmen and women or smaller workshops.
Fair Trade is central to his philosophy, ensuring that workers are treated well, paid a good wage and work in acceptable conditions. No child labour is used in the making of goods for his collections.
He is equally demanding about the items that end up in his gallery. He insists that antiques are from ethical sources and he personally chooses every single item – from the semi-precious stones in a pair of earrings to a piece of furniture.
When it comes to the rugs, they must be individually made from handspun wool, using vegetable dyes and no chemicals; the patterns must draw upon ancient traditions.
“They could probably make three rugs for tourists in the time it takes to make one for me,” says Alain, “but these are specialist people who thrive on quality work and I want to bring authentic Tibetan goods to England. Nothing else.”
So, how did a French man come to sell Tibetan goods in the Cotswolds?
Alain, originally from Lyon, south east France, studied applied art at college and moved to England after working in advertising in his native country.
Keen to escape the rat race, he went travelling in 1979 in order to study textiles and design of the Indian subcontinent. When he arrived in Nepal, he befriended a group of Tibetan refugees and was immediately struck by them, their stories and their culture.
It was this encounter that was to change his life.
“I met these people and thought I would like to help them, but how?” he recalls. “Buying one rug wouldn’t help, so I thought very carefully about what I could do.”
Using some inheritance money from his mother’s estate – she had died after a long battle with cancer just a few months before he went travelling – he left a small amount of money with the rugmakers and asked them to produce what they could with it, according to his instructions.
A few months later, when 20 rugs arrived in London, Alain contacted friends and threw a party to show them off in the hope he could sell them.
“I thought I could show them some beautiful photos of the workshops, tell them the stories of the people in the workshop,” he said. “I just wanted to see what their reaction would be.”
He sold every single one at no profit whatsoever.
“I was shocked, but really happy as it gave me the confidence to look at buying more.”
Now working as an interior designer and a host of other jobs to earn a living, Alain struggled to juggle his commitments.
He continued to travel to Nepal twice a year, slowly but surely building up a wealth of contacts who were commissioned to produce work for him.
In 1982, he moved to the Cotswolds but continued to work in London four days a week and dedicated the three remaining days to organising talks and exhibitions.
He became known as an expert in Tibetan rugs and travelled around Europe, this included a visit to the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where he gave lectures about Tibetan rugs and their origins.
Five years later, he realised he had to make a choice: continue with the interior design profession or build up his galleries.
“My heart was in Nepal and I knew it was what I really wanted to do,” he says. “I had an emotional stake in it, so I gave up the interior design.
“I’ve never regretted it for a single minute. I’d do it all again, except this time I wouldn’t panic so much. I used my brains too much, when in fact I work better from my heart.”
His work has extended far beyond commissioning beautiful goods for sale in the Cotswolds. He set up the Alain Rouveure Foundation and Nepal Relief Fund in 1983, opening a kindergarten/school so that youngsters can be educated in safe surroundings while their parents work.
He often engages single mothers to produce items for the galleries because they are often ostracised by their communities.
“I have been touched by their plights,” explains Alain, who was awarded a Special Commendation in the 2000 Worldaware Business Awards, whose patron his Her Majesty the Queen.
“What I do is very hands-on because I can control and monitor the way things are produced and ensure that people are taken care of.
“It’s not about running a business; it’s about making a difference. I’m not greedy and I enjoy what I do. “It would be easy to go over there and push a trolley through a trade centre, buying 20 rugs here, jewellery and pashminas there, but that’s not why I do it.
“I think people in the West are also realising what a difference it makes and they feel they have made a difference when they buy something too. We’ve gorged too long on cheap stuff.”
Talking to Alain i know his roots are in France and he loves life in the Cotswold’s, but his heart will always be in Nepal.
Alain Rouveure Galleries in Todenham sells a wide range of rugs, jewellery, textiles, papers, figurines and art, all of which are ethically sourced and hand-crafted in traditional Tibetan style by individual artisans or small workshops.
Customers can enjoy home-made food and cakes in the Himalayan Coffee Shop, which uses locally-sourced ingredients where possible, as well as organic coffees and teas.
For pure relaxation, try the Shangri-La Room , where professional treatments such as Indian head massage, aromatherapy massages using Nepalese essential oils, acupuncture, naturotherapy, and sports massages are available.
Or just enjoy walks around the stunning and peaceful gardens.
For details, visit www.alainRouveure.com or telephone 01608 65041