Chat with… Michelle and Pierre Gagnon, owners of Couleur Provence
DARIEN — Michelle and Pierre Gagnon hail from Lyon, France, and Paris, respectively, and have been married for 26 years. They never met in France.
Instead, they met at a (French) cafe on Madison Avenue and 38th Street in New York in the 1980s.
“She was a big star at the cafe,” Pierre said with a slight accent that most would not think of as French. “It took me some time to build up the courage to talk to her.”
Michelle laughed, shaking her head.
“I don’t think we would have met had we stayed in France,” she said, with a more pronounced French intonation. “What are the odds? The fact that I was working there and that he was a customer.”
The couple, who are both 66 and Stamford residents, have been owners of Couleur Provence, a French home decor store at 863 Post Road for the past 20 years. Baskets, drapery, lawn chairs and other decorations are scattered throughout the inside of the shop.
The Gagnons had originally looked to Greenwich and Westport in the late 1990s to open their store, but the cost of rent was far too high.
“When we decided to open our store, people would laugh at us when we said we wanted to spend that much on rent,” Michelle said. “We couldn’t find one until we had our original location next to the Darien Playhouse Theater, and then we moved here three years later in 2001.”
Around the shop are a series of paintings that range from small hand-sized portraits to larger canvases five feet in length. One depicts the torso of a man in an arched motion, another shows a dog on a lawn and yet another is a portrait of Michelle with a turtleneck sweater, her hands pulling it and covering everything below her eyes.
Pierre is the artist behind all of these paintings.
“I started painting around 10 years ago,” Pierre said as he walked into the workshop — his personal “atelier” — in a room behind the front desk. “It’s become one of my passions and a place where I can be myself.”
Books and watercolors litter the room. A poster with the wine regions of France and another of Tintin, the Belgian caricature, are plastered on the wall.
“Pierre got into it when he started painting and doing interior design,” Michelle said. “All the paintings here are his, I only put them up when I realized they were good.”
Art is what brought Pierre from Paris to the States. The son of French-Canadian parents, Pierre attended Parsons School of Design in New York City from 1968 to 1971, a deal that was less expensive than attending design school in his home country. Though he had plans to return to France, Pierre opted to stay and work as a textile designer in the city.
“I worked a variety of other jobs too; I was a cab driver for two years and also worked in construction for a Chinese company,” Pierre said.
Michelle came a decade later in 1981.
“I just needed a change and I got the change I was looking for. I came for a vacation in 1980 and got hysterical about the city and I told myself that I would come back and stay here the following year,” Michelle said.
For years the couple stayed in New York City until they decided to open up their own place in Connecticut.
“We were always managing other people’s businesses until one day one of my customers said ‘why don’t you open your own?’ and that’s when I knew,” Michelle said.
Pierre agreed. “She’s so creative and we work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with each other. Sometimes people ask how we can tolerate each other.”
Having lived in the United of the States for more than half their lives, Michelle and Pierre want to return to their native country at some point. Their dream is a small house in the countryside.
“As you get older you start to become nostalgic about where you grew up and your culture,” Michelle said. “It’s really strange but then again our family is there and we’d like to come back.”
Pierre, who was intent on losing his French accent when he came in 1968 so as to adapt quickly to his new environment, admitted that it would be a challenge to come back to France especially after assimilating to American life.
“I was a mix of two cultures — French and Canadian — and now American. I always had the sense of not belonging to any of the three,” Pierre noted. “People would ask about my accent and I felt guilty about not having an identity. I will find it hard for whenever we go back to France to adapt back to that system.”
Michelle, too, tried to work the accent off but gave up at after some attempts.
“People said they liked my accent so I saw no reason to lose it,” Michelle said with a smile.