‘There are trends in beauty, just as there are in fashion.’
Sitting in the reception of Parfums Christian Dior in Paris feels like waiting to embark on a luxury vacation in outer space. I can imagine the same ambience of spotless calm, the same dove-grey furnishings, an identically immaculate reception desk garnished with a silvery logo. If the elegant woman who entered a moment ago had floated past me rather than clicking across the floor on spike heels, I would not have been surprised. I expect to hear the compressed sigh of an airlock as she vanishes into the heart of the building.
The fashion designer Christian Dior started his fragrance business in 1947, with the perfumer Serge Heftler-Louiche, at the very moment he launched his first collection. Their debut fragrance was Miss Dior, inspired, it’s said, by the designer’s sister Catherine. The following year, Parfums Christian Dior had already opened offices in New York. Dior was well aware of the power of a fashion brand to attract consumers to ancillary products: in 1950 he licensed his name to a range of neckties and accessories in the United States. Dior Rouge lipstick appeared in 1955, although the skin cream Crème Abricot did not arrive until 1963, six years after his death. Ten years later, Parfums Christian Dior launched a range of skincare products under the name Hydra Dior.
It’s skin that I’m here to discuss today. Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis is the brand’s scientific director. As he welcomes me with a handshake, I note that he looks younger than the 41 my Google search indicated him to be, which makes him a convincing ambassador.
‘The relationship between fashion designers, skincare products and consumers depends on legitimacy,’ he explains, once we’re installed in his modest office. ‘By launching a perfume at the same time as his first collection, Christian Dior was particularly visionary. His name was associated with the world of beauty right from the start. Make-up followed fairly quickly – it is, after all, a fashion accessory.’
Skincare took off rather later, partly because the perfumes division was sold off and only reintegrated with the fashion company when it became part of LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) in 1988. Parfums Christian Dior is still run as a separate business, meaning that it has little do with Christian Dior, the fashion brand. But the combination of its luxury positioning and the perceived legitimacy of Dior in the beauty sector keeps customers coming back for more.
Mauvais-Jarvis assures me that there is more to the products than sleek packaging, however: ‘We play a leading role in skincare research. In fact, we share our research with the other brands within the LVMH group, such as Guerlain, Givenchy and Kenzo, thanks to our laboratories in Saint Jean de Braye. We have 260 researchers, which may seem quite a small number compared to the likes of L’Oréal, but we also work with exterior partners, such as Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.’
Stem cell research has proved fertile terrain for skincare marketers. As stem cells have the power to renew themselves, the theory is that epidermal stem cells should be protected – or even boosted – in order to ensure that they do their job of keeping our skin looking fresh and radiant with maximum efficiency. Such is the thinking behind Dior’s best-selling Capture Totale antiageing line, long promoted with advertising images of an apparently ageless Sharon Stone. It defends stem cells with TP Vityl, a topical constituent derived from vitamin E. This is what skincare marketers mean when they talk about ‘active ingredients’ – elements that have a job to do, rather than simply being part of the delivery vector, such as a colouring agent or fragrance.
Beauty companies tend to promote active ingredients with language that reflects their brand DNA. For instance, La Prairie (owned, like Nivea, by Beiersdorf) makes much of its Swiss origins, equating the pure air and snows of its homeland with health and purity. Thus it assures us that its Cellular Power Infusion contains ‘the stem cells of Swiss red grapes and extract of Swiss snow algae’. This somehow explains why it costs almost 500 dollars a pot. Anyway, let’s return to Mauvais-Jarvis.
‘I believe a smaller team with exterior partners is more flexible than an enormous research department that is practically a company within a company,’ he says. ‘In this business, you have to be reactive, because it’s important to be first on to the market with a discovery.’
Such partnerships are good for academic institutions too; they suggest the scientists are grappling with real-world issues, and in any case there is a financial incentive. ‘It’s not a donation,’ Mauvais-Jarvis stresses. ‘Our researchers work together. It’s a scientific approach – financed, admittedly – but there is a genuine exchange of opinion and expertise.’
Not that scientific discoveries immediately lead to the launch of new products. Indeed, a discovery can ‘lie in a drawer’, metaphorically speaking, until Dior works out how best to use it. ‘We’re constantly talking to consumers about their needs and desires, so we know when the time is right to launch a product. I compare it to the touch screen you have on your iPhone. The technology had existed for years, but Apple worked out the best way of incorporating it into a product.’
The fact is that most beauty companies have a marketing plan that stretches months or years into the future. They know exactly when they need to renew or replace existing product lines. Occasionally they may be forced to react quickly to a launch by a competitor. In both cases, they turn to the research department.
Mauvais-Jarvis denies that marketing drives research, but he agrees that they must be ‘in accordance’. He adds: ‘There is no point in launching a new product before the market is ready. We’re in business, after all. There are trends in beauty, just as there are in fashion. There is even a seasonal aspect: we know we launch anti-ageing products at the beginning of the year, whitening creams in Asia in March, slimming and toning creams in the spring.’
He cites the launch of Dior’s Capture Totale One Essential serum as the perfect example of research and marketing working in parallel. (A serum is richer and more intense than a cream.) The product derived from research Dior’s scientists had been doing with the Pierre and Marie Curie Institute in Paris into the ageing of proteins. The key was the discovery of the proteasome, a protein found within cells that acts as a miniature ‘recycling factory’, ridding cells of toxins or converting them into healthy proteins. This natural process – and here’s the kicker – slows with age, meaning that our skin cells accumulate more toxins as we grow older, resulting in lines, discoloration and a dull complexion. Dior’s answer was a product containing its patented ingredient Perle de Longoza, extracted from the Longoza plant in Madagascar, which is capable of – you guessed it – enhancing proteasome activity.
‘The idea of One Essential serum is that it gives your skin an overall boost and prepares it for other skincare products,’ says Mauvais-Jarvis. ‘It answered, to be honest with you, a trend in the market for universal serums, which other companies had launched but we did not yet have in our range. We had known about the effect of the proteasome for years, but had not found the right way of using it. Now, alongside the marketing team, we developed a concept that worked.’
The full force of Dior’s promotional machine went into action. The bottle itself, designed by packaging company Rexam, was a work of art. It was a deep, lustrous red, with a pump dispenser hidden by a silver metallic cap, a style reprised by the product description and brand name. Sharon Stone was shot for the print and poster advertising campaign, and samples were sent to obliging beauty journalists and bloggers.
The ‘skin boosting super serum’ was ‘an extraordinary success’, says Mauvais-Jarvis. It earned a mention in LVMH’s financial results for the first quarter of 2010, which described it as ‘performing well’.
Where science meets status
The desire to blind consumers with science has led to the equivalent of an arms race in the industry, as each brand attempts to outdo the other with its latest find. They patent their findings and boast about these patents in their advertising claims: for example, Estée Lauder signals ‘20 patents worldwide’ and ‘25 years of DNA research’, emphasized by a golden double helix, for its Advanced Night Repair cream.
Since 1991, Chanel has run the Centre de recherches et d’investigations épidermiques et sensorielles (epidermal and sensory research and investigation centre) (CERIES), which grants a €40,000 annual award for ground-breaking research into skincare. One of Chanel’s weapons in the skincare wars is Xavier Ormancey, the brand’s director of active ingredient research. Ormancey traipses through remote regions of the earth in search of exotic plants that may help reduce the effects of ageing. It can often seem as though he does this purely for the entertainment of journalists.
‘Ormancey, 42, scours the globe in search of undiscovered natural ingredients that just might constitute skincare’s next big thing,’ wrote a Times reporter in 2006. ‘Of late, his favoured destination has been Madagascar… Here not only has he seen off crocodiles and the mosquito-borne, joint-freezing chikungunya virus, but also scorpions, snakes, spiders and leeches. It is a spirit of adventure that has earned him the moniker of “the beauty world’s Indiana Jones”.’
Thanks to Ormancey’s work, we read, Chanel is poised to launch an antiageing cream eight years in the making:
The cream, Sublimage, has its origins in the northern extremity of Madagascar from whence, almost a decade ago, Ormancey received a tip-off about a species of vanilla tree bearing an amazing, life-giving fruit, of which only 13 specimens remained. Field tests of the Vanilla planifolia pod revealed that it comprised over 60 per cent active ingredient, in this case fruit polyketones, unrivalled even by antioxidant super-sources such as grapeseed or green tea.
(‘Beauty in full bloom?’, Times, 2 September 2006)
Like celebrity endorsers, Ormancey and his adventures bring a human dimension to those slippery tubes of cream.
After the London Times, it was the turn of its New York-based namesake to wax lyrical. ‘Whether he’s following Tibetan monks through the Himalayan foothills in search of a rose that blooms only under snow, macheteing his way through the Peruvian jungle for a vine that is eaten by condors to heal snakebites or procuring recipes for ancient Indonesian beauty elixirs, Ormancey is Chanel’s secret ecowarrior’ (‘Ecochic’, T Style Magazine, 27 August 2006).
With journalists writing this stuff, who needs advertising? More recently, for the launch of Chanel’s Essential Revitalizing Concentrate (the name sounds familiar), we find Ormancey on the trail of ‘the Golden Flower of the Himalayas: the Golden Champa’.
Wherever the plant was discovered, it lay at the intersection of three marketing imperatives: the desire for new active ingredients, the need for compelling stories, and the increasing demand among consumers for natural products. Dior has what it calls ‘gardens’ dotted around the world: protected areas from which it sources natural active ingredients. We’ve already mentioned Longoza seeds from Madagascar; to this you can add rare flowers from Uzbekistan and, closer to home, the vines of Yquem in the Bordeaux region of France. It is extraordinarily serendipitous that these vines have age-fighting properties, as Dior parent LVMH owns Château d’Yquem, producer of some of the world’s most expensive wine. It’s the luxury industry equivalent of a bonus prize.
Luxury skincare is outrageously expensive, but let’s not forget Helena Rubinstein’s theory that the fashionable do not want to buy anything affordable. They are even happier when it’s practically unobtainable. Take this clipping from the New York Times:
You need more than just dough – you need pull. Kanebo’s Sensai Premier is $1,320, when you can get it; Barney’s New York sold out in less than two weeks. A 21-day supply of La Mer the Essence is $2,100, available by invitation only… How to explain the breathtaking numbers? ‘You can buy a new designer handbag for fall, but you only have one face,’ says Jose Parron, the image director at Barney’s New York.
(‘Luxe creams – tags to riches’, 16 October 2005)
It’s the familiar luxury marketing equation: you can’t afford it; you’re not worthy; availability is limited – therefore you want it very much indeed.
Switzerland’s La Prairie understands this perfectly well.
The brand has its roots in the Clinique La Prairie – now a separate entity – founded by Dr Paul Niehans in Montreux in 1931. At this exclusive establishment, Niehans experimented with what he called ‘cellular therapy’, which involved injecting fresh cells from lamb foetuses into his patients (this is explained on the clinic’s website at www.laprairie.ch). The idea sprang from an experiment involving a patient with damaged parathyroid glands (which control the amount of calcium in blood and bones). Niehans injected the patient with a solution containing parathyroid cells from a calf. When the patient recovered, Niehans continued experimenting with animal–human cellular transplants. He concluded that the process extended life and even fought cancer. (The American Cancer Society dismisses this claim, saying that the treatment has never been scientifically tested.)
Predictably, the Holy Grail of a longer lifespan proved irresistible, and Niehans treated thousands of wealthy and influential clients, from Gloria Swanson to Pope Pius XII. The link between La Prairie and the elite was established.
In 1976, five years after Niehans’s death, Swiss banker Armin Mattli bought the clinic. He launched La Prairie Cosmetics, a range of skincare products whose marketing emphasized the clinic’s reputation in the cellular therapy field. The line was sold off in 1982, when it passed first to the US Cyanamid Company and then to Sanofi. In 1987 it was acquired by Georgette Mosbacher, a businesswoman and ‘vivacious socialite’ who had been married to Fabergé chairman George Barrie and was now the wife of oil tycoon and Republican party fundraiser Robert A Mosbacher. As CEO of La Prairie, she proved a dynamic force, turning the ailing brand around with a camera-ready personality and a knack of motivating sales staff that recalled Estée Lauder. In 1991 she sold the brand to Beiersdorf for a reported US$45 million.
Today La Prairie plays on its salubrious Swiss heritage, its swish packaging and its ‘patented Cellular Complex’ – rarely seen without the word ‘exclusive’ attached – to lure a mature and well-off target market. Branded spas within luxury hotels help maintain its profile within this group. The key to Cellular Complex seems to be the inclusion of glycoproteins, which stimulate cell repair. But, as a source in the beauty trade observed, there is no reason why this should work when applied to the skin. ‘You’d have to go much deeper to have any effect. Consumers are essentially paying for fragrance, texture – and status.’
In the summer of 2010, selected beauty journalists were invited by La Prairie to The Modern restaurant at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where the brand was launching a handful of new products. It typically does this between four and six months before launch, so the editors have plenty of time to discover the merchandise before closing their September and October issues – the thickest and most advertising-stuffed of the year.
The journalists were wooed with drinks and nibbles and handed branded La Prairie notebooks and pens. The products being launched included Cellular Radiance Emulsion SPF 30 (US$425), Anti-Ageing Neck Cream (US$200) and two holiday gift sets (US$950 each). A New York Times reporter described the brand as ‘the Apple computer of the beauty world’, adding, ‘Its packaging is gorgeous: silver, white, clear and sleek. Its prices are high. And it emphasizes face-to-face customer service. Most of the selling is done at kiosks in department stores… where potential clients are dabbed and spritzed with products, and quizzed about their skin care needs’ (‘Mimosas and caviar for breakfast’, 10 June 2010). At the event, Lynne Florio, president of La Prairie, said that the brand liked to ‘speak to the press and to our customers as often and as intimately as possible’.
The profusion of glossy magazines and the regularity with which editors are hosed with free beauty product by PR people – as well as the advertising clout of the brands themselves – explain the absence of critical discourse within the sector. The journalist Janet Street-Porter once savaged beauty editors as ‘traitors to their own sex’ who ‘churn out the column inches of drivel for these products, and act as propagandists for the cosmetics industry’ (‘Why beauty editors are the real villains’, Independent, 22 October 2000).
Had Street-Porter been writing today, she might have widened her aim to include the majority of beauty bloggers.
So are consumers duped by luxury beauty companies and their glossy familiars? That is far from certain. It seems more likely that they want to believe. They enjoy the whole chain of experience: talking to the ‘beauty consultant’ in the store, taking the streamlined object home, opening it up, and applying a cream whose colour, texture and fragrance have been designed to deliver an optimally pleasing sensation as it glides coolly on to their skin. Throughout the process, they cling to an irrational yet thoroughly enjoyable optimism.
Another fabulously pricey brand is Sisley, the French beauty company created in 1976 by Count Hubert d’Ornano, whose father was one of the founders of Lancôme. D’Ornano and his wife Isabelle were keen art collectors, so they named their brand after the Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley. Their story – way ahead of its time – was natural plant extracts. Sisley calls its process ‘phytocosmetology’, which involves blending natural active ingredients in a way that heightens the effect of each individual component.
‘Some people tell us they prefer to use one of our creams rather than go to a restaurant on a Saturday night,’ Isabelle once said (‘Sisley: the house of beauty’, Times, 9 October 2008).
Her comment goes right to the heart of luxury beauty. For many purchasers of creams, efficacy is not even half the point. A cream is a source of comfort, a self-indulgent treat, a way of feeling better about the day to come. That’s why beauty products continue to sell during a recession. Consumers are not addicted to the result, but to the feeling. Imagining the opulent spa or the brave eco-scientist hacking his way through a tropical rainforest is part of that experience.
Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that the main ingredient of most skincare products – from the cheapest to the most expensive – is water.