No single individual has done more to define French style and beauty than the fashion genius Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Though she was born at the tail end of the 19th century, her vision of the French woman – sassy, free spirited and effortlessly beautiful – prevails to this day. The house that Coco built – La Maison Chanel – has helped make style one of France’s top international exports. French women are universally believed to look, smell and age better than everyone else. When it comes to beauty products, untold numbers of women around the world choose brands such as Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Biotherm, produced by one or the other of two French multinationals: L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company and LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods company.
France first developed a reputation for scents and beauty products more than 350 years ago, in the reign of Louis XIV. The Sun King avoided hot-water baths; they were thought to open the pores, and expose the bather to diseases, such as syphilis and the plague. Instead, Louis rubbed his hands and face with alcohol and vinegar, and made abundant use of scents. Every day he ordered a different one diffused around Versailles, his favourites being hyacinth and orange flower water. Men and women at court wore powder, and sprinkled saffron and flower pollen in their hair, while ladies freshened their breath with aromatic plants, such as cinnamon, fennel, mint or lavender flower.
Perfume became an even bigger royal indulgence under the next king, Louis XV, and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, a beautiful tastemaker and patron of the arts who loved receiving luxury fragrances in jewelled cases. The king ran up unpaid perfume bills totalling more than £20,000 at the time, leading his glover-perfumer to go bust.
French women are universally believed to look, smell and age better than everyone else
Frenchness became synonymous with looking and smelling good, a perception that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did nothing to dispel.
In the centuries that followed, talented perfumers worked hard to keep that reputation alive. And in 1917, FrançoisCoty created Chypre, the first mass-market perfume, establishing France’s global supremacy in scents. The French had also taken the lead in haircare. In 1907, a chemist named Eugene Schueller developed a hair dye called L’Aureale,which he marketed among hairdressers. Two years later, his company, subsequently renamed L’Oreal, was born.
Meanwhile, the look of the French woman began to change, thanks in no small measure to Coco Chanel. Out went corsets and petticoats, and in came trousers, sailor tops, short hair and sun tans. As women’s role in society slowly evolved and the gender gap began to narrow, female wardrobes and hairstyles became a little more masculine. This quiet revolution continued after the Second World War, when Yves Saint Laurent officially dressed women like men, introducing trouser suits and tuxedoes as evening outfits.
On the big screen, a generation of French actresses courted scandal by projecting an image of sexual freedom, nonchalance and cool. In the 1956 And God Created Woman, busty Brigitte Bardot bewitched three different men in the sands of Saint Tropez. In the 1962 Jules et Jim, Jeanne Moreau formed a love triangle with two male devotees. And in the 1967 Belle de Jour, a bored young wife, played by Catherine Deneuve, whiled away her afternoons in a brothel. Each in their own way, the actresses modernised the image of the French woman.
Realising the magical impact that these screen stars had on women around the world, advertisers started linking their brands to them. As early as in 1958, Bardot began advertising Lux soap. From 1969 to 1977, Deneuve was the face of Chanel No 5 in a US commercial. More recently, Juliette Binoche featured in a Lancômeperfume ad and Audrey Tautou also endorsed Chanel No 5. Currently, Marion Cotillard is busy promoting the House of Dior.
The reputation of French women as aesthetic role models is now so entrenched that Gallic style tipsters have become bestselling authors. In Parisian Chic, Ines de la Fressange, herself the face of Chanel in the 1980s, warns against overuse of powder, foundation and face creams, and insists that French women are beautiful au naturel.
Notwithstanding their reputation for effortless good looks, French women in fact invest a great deal in beauty products. The numbers are overwhelming. France accounts for 25 per cent of the world market share in fragrances, haircare, skincare and make-up. It generates €25 billion in annual sales, more than half of that total on the domestic market. The cosmetics industry in France consists of 800 companies and 70,000 jobs. Make-up and skincare represent 32 per cent of the total, followed by toiletries (26 per cent), scents (21 per cent) and haircare products (21 per cent).
L’Oreal dwarfs all other cosmetics companies in the world, with 2013 sales of €22.98 billion and profits of €2.96 billion. Its brands include Lancôme, Yves Saint Laurent Beaute, Kiehl’s, Helena Rubinstein and Giorgio Armani Beauty. LVMH, meanwhile, generated revenue of €29.15 billion, thanks also to sales of fashion, accessories, and wines and spirits, and profits of €3.44 billion. Underpinning 2013 results were Christian Dior’s classic fragrances and product launches at Guerlain, not to mention sales at LVMH’s hugely popular Sephora cosmetics retailer.
As prosperity spreads to more households around the globe and an increasing number of women spend money to look good, the prospects for growth in the French cosmetics market appear healthy.
So long as France is not overtaken as the cradle of chic and its movie stars continue to draw international attention, iconic French brands will continue to enchant consumers around the world, and la femme françaisewill remain the example to follow.