LA BOUCHE ROUGE: THE FRENCH TOUCH

FRENCH HIGH END BEAUTY.

Nicolas Gerlier looks at me. ‘For you, the right shade of lipstick is the new one by Anja. It has a satin finish and contains no plastics.’ Nicolas Gerlier is not a makeup artist, but he is the mastermind behind La Bouche Rouge, the first French high-end beauty brand that can call itself sustainable.

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Anja? That’s top model Anja Rubik, the face of La Bouche Rouge. World-famous art director Ezra Petronio designed the look of the brand. Inspired by the personalization of objects in bygone days are the initials on the simple white packaging: LBR. To develop colours, Gerlier approached Anja Rubik and beauty expert Wendy Rowe, a consultant for Burberry who’s come up with special lipstick colours for Vogue covers.

Gerlier says he asked Anja Rubik not only for her beauty, but also because of her association with environmental organization Parley. ‘These days it’s important to give meaning to a product. It’s all about telling a true story. You need an intelligent, beautiful woman to do that.’

In the same way that French businessman Frédéric Malle shook the world of fragrance in 2000 with his innovative perfume house, Editions de Parfum Frédéric Malle, Nicolas Gerlier wants La Bouche Rouge to be the first ground-breaking, sustainable beauty brand in France. He’s convinced of the success of his mission. ‘When you do things from the heart and with a powerful personal vision, you will eventually succeed. I must admit, however, that I have no idea how long it will take to get there.’

Nicolas Gerlier’s first product for La Bouche Rouge is a sustainable line of lipsticks in a range of shades; they are based on a new formula and come with an optional leather case. Why lipstick? Gerlier fires away: ‘I’ve always been obsessed with lipstick. Lipstick is a fantastic product. Every woman has at least three in her purse. It’s a pleasure to wear, because it’s easy to create a look with lipstick. Also important: a pretty red mouth is very visible on social media. Red is like a manifesto, and sustainable La Bouche Rouge makes you militant. Lipstick is today’s personal signature; until a few years ago, it was perfume.’

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Gerlier says that lipstick is the key product for makeup brands. Sales have doubled worldwide. What’s more, the competition between the makeup business – lipstick, nail polish and foundations – and the skincare industry has changed completely. The reason? The power of internet and social media, with selfies and all kinds of information that lead to an individual’s shopping choices. Gerlier stresses the power of an online presence: ‘Digital and social media create possibilities for a new brand like La Bouche Rouge: we can broadcast our story without having to invest too much. All you need is an e-boutique, an Instagram account and social influencers.’

Nicolas Gerlier knows what he’s talking about. For over ten years he worked for L’Oréal, where he was responsible for the international marketing of Giorgio Armani and Lancôme Maquillage. He also spent time in the lab, helping to develop products and formulas. I ask whether he has a scientific background: ‘No, but I do have a financial background and a background in art.’ Before joining L’Oréal, Gerlier was with Sotheby’s in London. After leaving L’Oréal, he worked for four years in fashion retail, where he was involved in digital and social media. But beauty continued to fascinate him, especially because it would allow him to combine his creative talents with his business skills. Gerlier: ‘I wanted to launch something bearing my personal vision.’ He finds it odd that nothing new happens in the world of makeup. ‘The conservative world of beauty doesn’t understand “creation”. The marketing machine with its meetings and its focus on results is killing. But I’m sure the situation will change within the next three years.’

In 2016 he sets his sights on a beauty competition, challenging himself by submitting makeup based on a sustainable formula. He calls the product La Fille en Rouge and immediately wins first prize. Among other things, the award means that luxury conglomerate LVMH will support him with a strategy for his start-up and help him with the production, which takes place in Cosmetic Valley – a region near Chartres, about 90 km southwest of Paris – a location with a focus on beauty and the home of LVMH’s research centre, Hélios, where products are developed for Dior.

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One of the first things Gerlier does is to change the name: La Fille en Rouge becomes La Bouche Rouge. ‘That really stands for beauty: it’s edgy, simple and direct.’

Gerlier tells the director of the LMVH research centre that he wants total freedom as a start-up and is determined to make sustainable products. His plan is to remove all harmful ingredients from the lipstick: allergens, disrupters, smells, microplastics and preservatives. Gerlier aims high. He doesn’t want to be average. The deal with Hélios is to change existing beauty rules by making a sustainable product with sustainable packaging.

As a start-up, Gerlier shelters beneath the mighty LVMH umbrella, but financially he’s on his own. ‘It’s a win-win partnership. I work independently, but everything I learn about developing an entirely new colouring and pigmentation process is shared with Hélios. I own the patent, but Hélios has permission to use my proprietary information for other brands.’

In developing the lipsticks, Gerlier has two goals in mind: making the most qualitative lipstick formula in terms of comfort and longevity, and removing all harmful ingredients. A major challenge is the elimination of smells, because it’s difficult to find odourless ingredients. Gerlier’s plan succeeds for the most part. ‘In the balm, there’s no added scent, but you can smell the natural ingredient, styrax benzoin, which is a tree resin – a rich ingredient that’s good for lip protection.’ He emphasizes that he’s not yet permitted to market his brand as organic. ‘It would have to be at least 70 per cent organic, and it isn’t.’

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The first LBR lipsticks have satin and matte finishes. The latest version contains silicones, because it’s too expensive to make lipstick without them. To find a good alternative, Gerlier started a crowdfunding scheme this year. If he gets the amount he’s aiming for, he’ll use it to develop a silicone-free matte lipstick.

An important part of the LBR concept is the refillable case, made from a highly luxurious leather. The idea is that a customer buys not only the lipstick (€45) but also the case (€135). Gerlier spared no expense in developing the most beautiful leather case. His work was preceded by an extensive search. It was essential to find the right supplier. In the region of Alsace, Gerlier discovered a kind of leather that has been treated – since 1842 – with a secret tanning process involving no fewer than 700 steps. Buyers of the leather, which smells faintly of wood and has a ‘wax touch’, are Chanel and Hermès. The La Bouche Rouge lipstick case is stitched traditionally by an artisan. ‘France has two specialties: beauty and leather. La Bouche Rouge has the French touch!’

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Looking back, Nicolas Gerlier remembers the development of the refill as a nightmare. ‘But we did it.’ He takes a lipstick with a magnetic closure and pops off the cap. ‘Do you hear that sound? Très chic. The mechanism is eco-friendly. Compared with “ordinary” lipsticks, the use of plastic is minimal. Our lipstick contains only a very small piece of plastic – without it, the stick doesn’t fit. Did you know that women throw away a billion lipsticks a year? How many lipsticks get dumped by manufacturers is unknown, but that’s probably even more. Altogether, it’s a huge amount of plastic. My goal is to limit the use of plastic.’

What are his goals concerning the sale of the new product? ‘Of course, there’s a business plan,’ he says. But his biggest priority right now is conveying the message that LBR is the first sustainable French luxury label. The sale of the product is secondary.

The day before the interview, Gerlier hears that Instagram and Facebook are ‘extremely interested’ in the brand, owing to its originality. ‘They proposed a plan to test new e-commerce tools for doing business. Normally they work for large accounts and don’t have time for start-ups, but they looked at LBR from the perspective of sustainability. Instagram believes it’s the right channel to support the brand with the right strategy.’

Barely a month after the launch, Gerlier was approached by parties from New York, London, Dubai and Hong Kong. ‘I didn’t have to call anyone.’ His explanation? ‘The timing was perfect. Right now it’s important to be extremely authentic and to keeping focusing on the core message: beautiful packaging, sustainability, an excellent formula and a good network.’

 Do you have any advice dor start-ups? ‘Focus on a single product. Many brands start by calculating how they can reach a million in profit with a number of products. That method is outdated. Today, one key product is enough, provided it’s unique, simple and necessary. LBR’s unique features are the refillable leather case, the formula and the concept: to be the first French beauty maison based on luxury and sustainability.’

You must be contemplating expansion already? ‘Yes, the kickoff combines our lipstick with our made-to-measure lipstick service, which allows customers to order personal colours via an app. In the long run, I’d like to launch skincare as well. And why not leather products? Swedish firm Byredo is a good example. They started with fragrances before adding leather products to their offering. A store? Possibly, but nowadays a pop-up store is the way to go.’

Check for prices: laboucherougeparis.com