By and  on October 9, 2009

In the battle of niche versus behemoth beauty brands, Le Métier de Beauté is the proverbial David, only with a more high-tech weapon than a slingshot.

The fledging color cosmetics line aims to break free of niche conventions — specifically that design trumps efficiency — by aligning itself with the Melbourne-based biotechnology firm, Phosphagenics Limited.

Employing a technology platform called TPM — or a multicomponent mixture of tocopheryl phosphates — that has been used as a delivery system for insulin and pain medication, Le Métier and Phosphagenics have developed a color treatment collection designed to deliver retinol to the dermis, the skin’s deepest level.

The upcoming technology is offered in two forms, a tinted fluid, Peau de Vierge de Anti-Aging Complexe, for $125, and a concealer, Peau de Vierge Correcteur, for $95. Both products are slated to launch at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus next month, with a product tester hitting counters on Thursday.

“You want retinol in your skin. You don’t want it in your blood,” said Dr. Esra Ogru, chief operating officer of Phosphagenics, who explained that delivering a specific amount of the active ingredient to the dermis relies on a ratio of TPM and retinol. Because the retinol is encapsulated, she added, it does not cause irritation and sun sensitivity, common side effects of the antiaging ingredient. Ogru said the technology also can be used to deliver other cosmeceutical compounds.

The technology in the upcoming product is clinically proven to be 20 times more effective at delivering the active ingredient to the skin than traditional topical applications, said Joanna Vorachek Austin, president of Le Métier de Beauté.

“This product elevates us from being a niche brand — which is generally defined as a color brand — that can’t play with the big four,” said Vorachek Austin.

Le Métier inked a joint development deal with the biotech firm, where the two companies share the profit margin, a marked departure from the approach many larger beauty companies take of buying the rights to patents and then paying royalty fees.

Vorachek Austin, along with Rich Blanch, chief executive officer, and Jerry Mastellon, chief operating officer, have been developing the line since 2004, and incorporated the business in 2007. The following year, it launched in Neiman Marcus. Today it is sold in 40 doors across Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in the U.S., Joyce in Hong Kong and Liberty in London. The brand — which Vorachek Austin declares “is not looking for global domination” — has a long-term goal of 1,000 doors worldwide globally.

Industry sources estimate Le Métier’s annual retail sales come in at more than $5 million, and forecast the brand will generate more than $15 million to $20 million next year, with the two Peau de Vierge products contributing $2 million to $3 million in first-year retail sales.

Ed Burstell, Liberty’s buying director, first reviewed the line at Bergdorf Goodman, where he was the then vice president and general merchandise manager for beauty, jewelry and accessories. “At first I was a little suspect that [Le Métier] wasn’t attached to somebody’s name, but the more I thought about that, the more I liked that it wasn’t,” he said. “It had nothing to do with hype. It all came back to the product.”

Referring to Peau de Vierge, Pat Saxby, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for cosmetics and fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman, said: “Le Métier marries some really strong treatment with color. It has been done to some extent, but not to this extent. My customers are savvy enough to know what retinol is and what it does.”

Le Métier prides itself in craftsmanship — hand-making each item in small batches and looking to history and other industries — cell phones for packaging, for instance — for inspiration. “The customer is interested in detail. It’s what luxury is. Or at least [the definition of] luxury from 20 years ago,” said Vorachek Austin.

“When we started to develop the brand over four years ago, we took a look at makeup artists’ kits and saw that they were a grab bag of products. We would see lipsticks with obscure labels [for instance]. So we started talking to makeup artists to find out what products they needed,” Vorachek Austin said, adding the brand still works with an advisory committee, which includes industry experts such as beauty editors and makeup artists to help guide its development. “Our goal is to bring the best products possible to market.”

Le Métier acknowledges introducing a color cosmetics in a market teeming with product is not for the faint of heart. Blanch said, “It’s very difficult to do what we’ve done. We’ve spent five years on this [brand]. It took us three-and-a-half years to get it into a store.”

He continued, “We heard all the reasons why not to, but we have experience that’s valued and we saw a large gap in the market for luxury.”

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