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CEW France Dreaming Big

Created in 1986, it now boasts 440 members whose good works resonate widely.

CEW France dreams big.

Created in 1986, it now boasts 440 members whose good works resonate widely.

“CEW worldwide is unique because there is no other nonprofit women’s organization in our industry,” explained Françoise Montenay, president of CEW France, who is also president of the supervisory board at Chanel SAS. “We share the same values. We share the same objectives, but we don’t do it in exactly the same way. We have a different organization according to our culture.”

When CEW France was established, the beauty industry had a reputation for being “futile,” Montenay noted.

“We used to hear, ‘Oh, it’s just for money, for France, like Champagne. It’s not useful,’” she added. “We decided that we wanted to regroup as women.”

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Former Quest International public relations executive Michèle Meyer learned about CEW in the U.S., and a licensing agreement was inked with the association.

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Five years after its founding, CEW France had about 160 members. They’d already staged seminars and organized a trip to Japan to meet with local retailers, agents, press and manufacturers, but decided they needed to do more.

“We thought we were very, very lucky to work in the beauty industry — and that we had to share that luck,” Montenay said.

A CEW France member, who prefers to remain anonymous, worked at Institut Gustave-Roussy, a leading cancer-research institute and oncology health care center located outside of Paris, and noted the need for beauty programs for its patients.

Meyer proposed that CEW offer patients free beauty treatments, including relaxing massage, manicures, pedicures, hair removal, facials and beauty advice, either bedside or in the hospital’s beauty center.

“We went to [talk] with the head of that hospital and he believed in us at once,” said Montenay. “We began very small, with one beautician three days a week. The nurses used to take the appointments. After one year, it worked so well that they gave us two rooms; we had two beauticians five days a week.”

In 1998, after several beauty centers had been developed in numerous hospitals, the group decided to create a sister association, called Les Centres de Beauté de CEW, with its own board that was entirely dedicated to the project. Today, it has 24 free beauty centers with 31 top-tier beauticians who are paid by the organization as well as holding down other jobs. Montenay serves as Les Centres’ president, as well.

“In hospitals, you cannot put patients in inexperienced hands,” she said. “We have developed our own processes, because the beauty problems are different when you have cancer.”

She noted that people with cancer often have extremely dry skin or can lose their eyebrows, eyelashes and, not infrequently their nails, for example.

CEW France’s beauticians work not only with hospitalized patients, who are being treated for 20 different types of illnesses — most of which are cancer, but also in residences for older people, called établissement d’hébergement pour personnes âgées dépendantes, and shelters for young women.

Some beauticians work in patients’ sterile rooms; Montenay recalled a terminally ill woman who recounted fond memories of her beauty treatments during a period when she had only two visitors. The patient said one was “my mother, who was always weeping, and the beautician, who was like sunshine for me.”

In 2003, a professor at Raymond-Poincaré, a hospital specializing in rehabilitation in Garches, outside of Paris, asked for CEW’s assistance. 

Often with brain trauma, people lose memories, but their olfactive center is nestled very deep, and so even after severe accidents it often remains intact.

“This professor asked us if we could, with our knowledge of perfume, odors and flavors, help those young people,” said Montenay, explaining most of the patients in the hospital are under 30 years old.

CEW France worked with an olfactory teacher from Institut Supérieur International du Parfum, de la Cosmétique et de L’aromatique Alimentaire and two perfumers from International Flavors & Fragrances to help patients conjure up memories through scent. The team composed different thematic presentations of  three to six odors associated with various life events. A birthday party scenario, for example,  may involve the scents of candles and chocolate.

“It is just for the imagination. Even if they don’t recognize what they smell, it’s not a problem,” said Montenay. “What is important is they are speaking. It works very well, and now we have 13 workshops in different pathologies.”

CEW France is overseen by a board whose members each oversee a committee of volunteers. All of the people working in the association have another job in the beauty industry.

CEW France has just one salaried employee, its secretary. And the organization interfaces with both the association’s U.S. and U.K. branches. As in all CEW chapters, the French arm sets out to aid members in their professional lives — and to help them feel comfortable as leaders and know they have a network. Conviviality, said Montenay, is a key part of CEW France.

Among its activities, the organization holds conferences. Some are open to members only, and these begin at 6:30 p.m. with a glass of Champagne. This year 16 such gatherings are planned, with speakers including the founder of Beauty Couture, a sampling concern.

CEW France also hosts a handful of art-related happenings, with women attending the likes of the Centre Pompidou or Musée Rodin accompanied by a curator, followed by dinner, twice annually.

Professional trips have included visits to Russia, India, the U.S., the U.K. and, in France, Grasse and Bordeaux.

“Our main challenge in the coming years is to get more members,” said Montenay, adding that expanding its younger membership base is top priority.

“We need to have more people, more representatives from all of the profession and of all ages because the more we are, the more effective we are,” she explained. “We should be 1,000.”

Today, the oldest CEW France member is about 86 years old and the youngest, 24.

Ultimately, it is possible that more people will be paid on the association’s staff and that men might be able to join.

Montenay said among the things she loves at CEW is how the members “laugh a lot — and specifically, when we have difficult times.” The beauty centers are a strong common cause.

“What I’m really proud of at CEW and at the centers is everything that we make happen is because we dream. We dream all the time,” said Montenay. “I am very proud of the members who are able to give their time, and I am very proud of this complicity between women.”