During this, Groupe Clarins’ 60th-anniversary year, Christian Courtin-Clarins and his daughter Virginie sat down in the family company’s newly minted headquarters to discuss the past, present and future—with no small measure of love and laughter blended into the mix.
This story first appeared in the October 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
What is your earliest beauty memory?
Christian Courtin-Clarins: It is the Model’Bust my father created before he created Clarins. We called it the Médicin’Bust. It was equipment that helped women have a fantastic massage with cold water, and it was my first toy.
Virginie Courtin-Clarins: For me it is the sun products. We used to go on holiday all together, and I remember as a kid thinking that my father and my grandfather were making cosmetics products for us. I remember going to the beach and seeing other families with Clarins products and thinking: “Oh my God, they stole our products.” And that’s how I realized that they were making products not just for the family.
What are among your most amusing family recollections?
V.C.: Our grandfather … made [his four granddaughters] try products and discuss the names of lipstick or makeup. We were always involved in the decision he wanted to make for marketing or communication.
I remember when I was about 20 years old, he wanted me to try the new slimming product—Total Body Lift, it’s called now. We arrived at our family house in the South of France, and he told me: “You’re going to try it. But in order to make sure it works you’re going to try it for the whole summer on only one leg.” Let me tell you, it works, because at the end of the summer, the other leg—I didn’t like it anymore!
C.C.: One day we were invited to the house with my father, and the cook said: “Oh Jacques, I love your product. It’s so great. It’s so efficient. I prepared the salad with it.” [They laugh.] We didn’t understand. Then we ate the salad and we recognized the Anti-Eau Body Treatment Oil! She asked, “But why do you make it in such small bottles?” My father said he had to review the method of use and make clear that you apply it on skin.
How do you approach creativity and management?
C.C.: Creativity for me is always to try and find something different. Constraints create creativity, because as soon as you have a problem you have to find a solution, so you have to be creative. You don’t have to be afraid to face a problem. A lot of things that happened in the company came from a constraint. For instance, the cost of goods of a bottle of Angel led us to a refill system.
[For] management, the one word that I use more than “respect” is “consideration,” because you have to listen, understand why people think like [they do]. It’s a question of consideration, trust and confidence that make a good manager.
You have to make [people] work together. That’s why I’m fascinated by rugby, because you need every guy—a small one, a quick one, a tall one— it’s individuals that play as a team.
V.C.: Creativity and management are both related to your own instincts. We are very lucky to be a family company, so we can follow our instincts and not trends. For example, for the creative people who we work with—like Thierry Mugler’s designer David Koma—I try not to restrain his work to some trends or only business-oriented considerations and instead let him go with his own feelings and what we think is right. If we listen to statistics, or studies or whatever, nothing can be changed or get done.
Christian, how has the industry changed since you began working? What has been the most exciting?
C.C.: The industry changed mainly in Europe, because there has been a huge concentration of distribution. In one way it is good because you can be more organized. On the other hand, it [somewhat] reduces creativity in the sense that when you have something new, it has to work very quickly or it is removed from the shelves because there are so many things coming [out] for marketing reasons.
The most exciting is that there is always an evolution of our world with the Web. But we have to face that customers are changing, and we are going to see [increasingly] a very strong relationship between brick-and-mortar and the Internet. We will need more creativity to attract the customer to come and visit us [in store] because the competition of the Internet is going to be huge. We have to adapt to both [realms].
Virginie, what have you learned from watching your father?
V.C.: Oh là là.
V.C.: Everything—no, it’s true. [She laughs.] Usually we don’t do interviews together, so I always say that he’s my hero, my personal example—now I have to say that in front of you.
C.C.: She makes me blush.
V.C.: I always loved the way he understands, listens, manages. I mean, honestly, I try to always do the same things. He has this aura.
How would you describe each other’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?
C.C.: She has huge determination, and that’s the most important. She’s quick, and she’s clever. You have a lot of clever people, but you have very few people who have the determination to do things. As for a weakness, she doesn’t like to lose. She’s a bad loser.
V.C.: It’s true. When I play, it’s to win.
For my father, I think kind of the same thing. He’s very intelligent, so he understands everything super fast—even when he pretends not to. [She laughs.] He’s very human to people. And maybe his flaw is the same as mine; it’s that sometimes we take things too much to heart and it’s difficult to disconnect.
What are you working on right now?
C.C.: I have been asking: “What’s going to happen to selective distribution, and how are we going to be different from the mass market? How can we keep our momentum?” I found one solution yesterday.
And? Can you reveal it?
C.C.: No, certainly not. [He laughs.]
V.C.: He didn’t even tell me yet!
C.C.: I found the answer because I went to buy some shoes, the new Berluti [sneakers], and I found the solution.
V.C.: I have the show in two weeks, so I’m working a lot on that. I wear two caps here in the group: I have my day-to-day work at Mugler. And my second cap is as member of the Clarins board. As the third generation, we try to be much more involved in strategic decisions and the brand. We try to address topics that are very important for the brand development—how we see the brand
in the next 10, 20 years.
What are the biggest upsides and downsides of today’s business?
C.C.: If we want to keep the [term] high-end distribution, selective distribution, we have to offer customers a buying experience they want to come back to. So we have to look at the long term. Today, particularly when you are in a crisis, because more or less all over the world our industry is suffering a little bit, particularly in Europe, we are short term–minded.
The upside is research makes a lot of progress. Skin-care products are going to be better and better in terms of improving skin at every age, for every problem. Makeup is more and more a glorifier of beautiful skin.
Fragrance is a concern because with new laws I’m afraid that we will lose creativity because we are going to have to reduce a lot of ingredients and also because if you come with a … fragrance that needs to establish itself as did Angel and Alien, I am not sure the retailers will allow us the time.
V.C.: There’s nothing left to say except that maybe for us the upside of being in that market as a family company is that we can think with long-term vision because we don’t have outside shareholders saying we need profit right now.
This building is a good example of what we want. [That] we are celebrating the 60-year anniversary and moving to a new building at the same time actually represents all our values. It’s H.Q.E. [Haute Qualité Environnementale, or high-quality environmental]. We wanted all the people from the group to be together as one big family. But it’s also the starting point for the next 60 years. Our biggest strength is being able to say yes or no to investment in the long term.
C.C.: It’s very strange. Nineteen fifty-four was the creation of Clarins; ’64, the first Clarins product. In 1974 I joined the company; ’84 we moved to Rue Berteaux-Dumas in Neuilly. In 2014, for our 60th birthday, we moved to this place.
V.C.: And I got married in 2014.
What happens when there are disagreements within the family?
C.C.: First we sulk, for one day minimum. [He laughs.] Then we come back and speak.
V.C.: Communication is very important. If we have something that bothers us—any member of the family—we try to keep the rule that we have to tell what the problem is and try to find a solution together.
C.C.: We always find a solution because we love each other.
V.C.: It’s like in a couple—you need communication. With my Uncle Olivier and my cousin Prisca, who has entered the group, every month we have lunch to discuss our business and make sure that communication between us is completely clear.
Christian, what advice do you give Virginie?
C.C.: Be yourself. I tell my daughters you can do what you want, but you have to be good at what you do. I never force them to do something that they don’t want to do.
Are there certain family sayings or mantras that are often repeated?
C.C.: Do more, do better and enjoy doing so.
V.C.: “Respect” is really one of the core values of the group—respect the customer, respect nature, respect the people working with us, respect your family—everything.
Of what are you most proud?
C.C.: My father asked me to write on his tomb: “Here lies a man who surrounded himself with people smarter than him.” I would like the same thing said of me.
V.C.: I think I’m too young, and it would be too narcissistic to answer that because I’m at the beginning of my career.
C.C.: So you’re proud of all the objectives that you want to reach?
V.C.: Yes. And I am proud to think that the best is to come.