The crème de la crème - Issue 38 - Magazine | Monocle

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“In a family-run business there’s a lot of trust. When we shake hands we know it’s better than any contract,” says Christian Courtin-Clarins, chairman of the leading French beauty brand founded by his late father, Jacques, in 1954. Unlike many key companies that have fallen into the well-moisturised hands of industry giants Estée Lauder and L’Oréal, Clarins is firmly independent and family-owned. And with a presence in 145 countries, it has a large share of the $36.5bn (€27bn) global cosmetics industry: sales hit €1bn last year.

Jacques Courtin-Clarins launched the business with beauty products made exclusively from plant extracts, a tradition that continues to this day. Beauty editors soon latched on to his range and the firm saw rapid success despite, in the early days, never marketing itself (that’s a tradition that has changed).

“My father was a pioneer with plant extracts, so I visited laboratories and met a lot of people involved with nature when I was younger,” says Christian as he pulls out a well-worn book that belonged to his father from a shelf at the Paris HQ, a copy of a tome written in the 16th century by the Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli. The book also played a role in Christian’s decision upon joining Clarins in 1974 to continue pushing the firm in an environmentally aware direction and ordering that its laboratories cease animal testing.

Christian still drives the business – he raised sales from €1m in 1974 to their heady billion-euro level today – while his brother Olivier takes after his father as the brains behind product development. “If you look at other brands like Estée Lauder, Lancôme and Dior, they all place the emphasis on newness and star products,” says Marie-Rose Tricon, senior vice-president of global marketing. “We also place as much effort on renovating existing formulas. People are loyal to Clarins because our products don’t become discontinued.” Clarins Double Serum Génération 6 is a prime example. Created in 1985 by Jacques, its ingredients are given a makeover every four years.

Staff loyalty is an indication that the Clarins brothers are running a profitable and happy ship. According to president Isabelle Herbreteau, Clarins employees – there are 6,000 worldwide – stay with the firm for an average of 10 years. Customer satisfaction is also key and more than a third of the products are developed in response to customer demand. Consumer feedback arrives on the green suggestion cards, introduced by Jacques in the 1960s, inserted into every package. Each card is numbered, so if there is a complaint, Clarins can trace when the product was made.

All lines are made in factories in France, including one in Pontoise in the suburbs of Paris that has its own recycling plant. Sixty per cent of its French customers return their empty packaging here. Clarins corporate strategy also includes supporting projects to preserve the ecosystem of the French Alps. “As a company we want to be a good example to the cosmetics industry,” says Christian.

There was a period when the family flirted with the stock market. In order to increase the size of its factories and invest in new laboratories, they went public in 1984 but constant demand for profit hampered investment in long-term research. In 2008, the family bought the company back. “Squeezing our company for 15 per cent of operating profit each year wasn’t good. In skincare, new products take time and research and long-term investment is our raison d’être,” says Christian.

As the leading premium skincare brand in Europe and number four in the US, the firm is doing fine back in the hands of the two brothers who hope that one day their children will also join the enterprise. Christian says: “We hope to achieve the number one slot without ever losing sight of our father’s vision.”

Clarins timeline 

Clarins is founded in Paris by Jacques Courtin-Clarins 

Christian Courtin-Clarins joins the company with his father and creates the export division 

Becomes No 1 in France and opens its first US subsidiary 

The firm enters the stockmarket and opens its own lab

Begins to implement policy of no animal testing or use of animal ingredients

Acquires licence for Thierry Mugler perfumes and Parfums Azzaro, which form the Clarins fragrance group 

Dr Olivier Courtin-Clarins joins the group and opens an international research network

Responsible Development department created by Christian

Clarins leaves the stockmarket 

Clarins will launch a fragrance for Swarovski

Top five products 

Les 3 Huiles pour le Visage et le Corps

One of the original product ranges developed by the founder. Clarins’s fragrant body and face oils are recommended for their toning and nourishing properties. 

Eau Dynamisante 

Created by Jacques Courtin-Clarins and launched in 1987, this was the first fragrance to combine skincare benefits of plant extracts and is a unisex chypre scent. 

Double Serum Génération 6  

The formula of this skin-firming product is updated every four years. It is promoted as having anti-wrinkle properties. 

Beauty Flash Balm 

Used to brighten complexions and eliminate signs of fatigue. 

Bust Beauty Extra-Lift Gel 

The tightening effect of oat sugars and Vietnamese vu sua extract make this a “natural bra”. 

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