At the recent Paris Fashion Week, there was only one party to be seen at: L’Oréal’s supermodel-studded extravaganza, and Style was there. Our head of fashion witnesses the backstage preparations and meets the brand’s dynamic president
In a grand set of rooms overlooking the River Seine in Paris, a tiny make-up artist stands on tiptoe, her hand reaching upwards. She is trying to touch up Karlie Kloss’s lipstick, but she may as well be attempting to feed a giraffe. I think she might need a ladder. Amazonian doesn’t quite cut it with Kloss: 6ft 1in of ballet-honed elegance, she is supernaturally poised. She is also supernaturally friendly, on account of her upbringing in St Louis, Missouri, where having a snooty attitude wouldn’t get you anywhere. Kloss is the kind of girl who brings homebaked cookies onto set, then writes code in her downtime, and when she flashes her full-beam smile, there is only one word to describe it: wow!
No wonder L’Oréal Paris signed her up as a spokesmodel in 2014. Otherworldly yet utterly approachable, she’s exactly the kind of woman you need to sell £20bn worth of cosmetics a year. L’Oréal, the maker of Elnett hairspray and the RevitaLift anti-ageing skincare products and the company behind the famous catchphrase “Because I’m worth it”, is the biggest beauty brand in the world, topping the BrandFinance 50 Most Valuable Cosmetics Brands league table for the third year running. It’s easier to list the countries where you can’t buy its products (Greenland, Papua New Guinea and North Korea), than the 130 countries where you can (including Angola, Somalia and Madagascar).
Cyril Chapuy, the brand’s dynamic president, says the job is not as simple as selling lipsticks in Azerbaijan. “We want to redefine self-confidence today,” he proclaims. And he has found a new way to do that. Later this month, L’Oréal will be one of the first brands in the world to test shoppable Instagram. Tap on a tagged product and the price will come up, tap the “shop now” tag and you can buy direct from L’Oréal’s website. “It will be a game-changing moment,” says the fresh-faced executive, who admits to trying many of the brand’s skincare and haircare products himself.
The preparations I’m witnessing are for L’Oréal’s Gold Obsession-themed Paris Fashion Week party. A twice-yearly bash, it brings together as many of the brand’s high-profile faces from around the globe as possible. There are 35 spokesmodels from 15 different countries. Jane Fonda, its oldest ambassador at 78, can’t make it, but “pregnant” Cheryl Cole, 33, is on her way. Backstage at the party venue, the diverse line-up of spokesmodels ready themselves for the photoshoots that are happening in quick succession. The Ethiopian Liya Kebede arrives in jeans, but emerges moments later in a teeny Grecian-style gown. Barbara Palvin, the Hungarian beauty who may or may not be dating Lewis Hamilton (a face of L’Oréal’s men’s line), hobbles through, trying not to smudge her freshly done toenail polish, and someone is telling Kloss to show the “glitter inside”.
Ellen von Unwerth is shooting the statuesque British redhead Alexina Graham. As the squelchy disco music plays, she crawls like a cat, makes cute bunny ears with her fingers and swishes her lavish ponytail. Then it’s time for a group shot. Suddenly there is the unmistakable rumble of high heels on parquet as they come en masse: Lara Stone, Doutzen Kroes, Natasha Poly, Kristina Bazan, Bianca Balti, Luma Grothe, the bleach-blonde South Korean superstar Soo Joo Park, China’s most famous model, Xiao Wen Ju, and Kloss. They pass by in a gossiping gaggle of hairspray and glitter. It’s like the migration of the wildebeest, but much, much prettier.
Surveying his international brood of beauties, Chapuy notes: “To be a global beauty brand, it is important to decode beauty around the world and adapt it to our consumers.” He spends much of his time travelling to the countries where L’Oréal is sold. In the past four weeks, he has visited Russia, South Korea, China and America. “You can’t understand their culture and their beauty tastes if you just stay in your office,” he says. “When you are there, you keep your eyes open, observe and discuss how people define beauty. It requires curiosity and a deep interest in women to decode beauty. You need to question everything: why skincare is considered more important than make-up in this country; why make-up is not considered an important process to create beauty in that country.”
We Brits, he says, are among the most experimental beauty consumers in the world, thanks in large part to inexpensive products that are widely available in stores such as Boots. “They like playing it loud. Compared to other European countries, I think British people like to make daring experiments. There is so much personality in British women.” And what do we love the most? “Lips, Lips, lips! Lipsticks are very popular in the UK. Also, strong hair colours. We are launching a new range next January in the UK. They are very bright and daring. You can be one colour this week and another colour the next. You can be as creative as you want. Not every country likes to experiment with hair colours, so it is very special.”
The brand was one of the first established beauty companies to work with bloggers. One of its most popular ambassadors is the British blogger Emily Canham, who has 457k followers on Instagram. Digital influencers are an indispensable part of the marketing machine, says Chapuy. “Today, markets divide into communities: youth communities, mature communities, ecological communities. Everyone feels like they belong to a certain community. Everyone feels included because there is a community on social media that follows a similar make-up or skincare product that they admire.”
L’Oréal, he says, is best known in certain categories — anti-wrinkle creams (RevitaLift), haircare and lipsticks, so his biggest challenge is “to keep the excitement for the younger generation”. L’Oréal uses social media to help persuade millennials to use the same brand as their mothers. “This is why the role of mass marketing is changing so much. By collaborating with these digital influencers, it allows us to be smarter and more conscious of what our markets desire.”
The other growth area is men’s products — L’Oréal is the number one brand in this category with its Men Expert range. Chapuy says that more and more men want to take care of themselves, and he has his eyes set on every bathroom cabinet in China. “Chinese men are more accepting of the men’s beauty industry. They are interested to learn how to properly cleanse and moisturise their faces.”
His spokesmodels cheer as he takes his place on a giant glitter ball for a group shot. They know, and so does he, that L’Oréal has helped make their fortunes. The disco beats get louder and party time approaches. Kloss and the gang groove along. There is much pouting, Snapchatting and competitive hair tossing. Chapuy couldn’t look happier.
L’Oréal Paris Gold Obsession collection is available nationwide
Models: Bianca Balti at Storm (London), Natasha Poly at Select Model Management (London), Doutzen Kroes at Viva Model Management (London), Liya Kebede at IMG Models, Alexina Graham at The Society Management NY, Karlie Kloss at IMG Models, Xiao Wen Ju at IMG Models, Barbara Palvin at IMG Models, Soo Joo Park at Esteem Models Seoul, Luma Grothe at Premier Model Management London
Hair: Stéphane Lancien using L’Oréal Paris Elvive Fibrology Shampoo, Elnett Hairspray and Elnett Crème de Mousse. Make-up: Charlotte Willer and Karim Rahman using L’Oréal Paris True Match Foundation and Color Riche Gold Obsession lipstick collection