French beauty brand Caudalie sets sights on U.S.

For Bertrand and Mathilde Thomas, founders of French beauty brand Caudalíe, it could be considered make it or break it time. The wine harvest in the major wine regions of France begins each September providing Caudalíe with the raw materials for their skincare products.

“They have to give us the raw materials in good shape,” said Bertrand Thomas during a recent visit to Atlanta last month. “And the longer it is in the sun, the less good it is for us.”

The 15-year-old brand, well-known throughout Europe, is the top anti-aging brand in French pharmacies. The couple and their three children recently relocated to New York with the intention of conquering the U.S. beauty market.

“We don’t think we can be successful in the long-term without the U.S.,” Thomas said. “People say you should go to China, Brazil and Russia, but when we went to China, they just wanted to know what was selling in the U.S.”

Inspired by the vines at her family vineyard in the Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte region of Bordeaux, Mathilde and her husband launched Caudalíe in 1995. Working with Dr. Joseph Vercauteren, a known expert of the vine, they researched anti-oxidant properties of grapes and developed three products for the European market.

They patented a method of extracting and stabilizing grape-seed polyphenols, an ingredient that is instrumental in preventing free radical damage. With a research team in place, they went on to establish two more patents. Reservatrol from grapevine stalks aids cell renewal and skin firmness and Viniferine from grapevine sap improves radiance and reduces dark spots.

It takes 1,000 pounds of grape-seed to make just one pound of polyphenols, Thomas said explaining their dependence on a good harvest, but the couple wouldn’t have it any other way.

Products using grape extract have been around since the '80s, but most used synthetic materials, Thomas said. Caudalíe products are 97 percent natural with only plant ingredients and free of parabens, sulfates, mineral oil and artificial coloring.

"What we brought was the technology. We said, if you use these highly reactive ingredients without stabilizing them, you won’t have the benefits,” Thomas said.

In 1999, the couple opened a Vinothérapie spa in Bordeaux offering treatments such as wraps, massage and facials that feature Caudalíe products. They opened a U.S. location in 2008 at The Plaza Hotel in New York.

The challenge they face in the U.S. is to change the culture when it comes to skincare, Thomas said. While U.S. consumers are certainly savvy, they tend to rely more on makeup to achieve flawless skin than quality skincare.

“In the U.S. [women] have to teach their skin how to find its own balance. We love makeup, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to solve anything,” he said. “We teach [consumers] to treat the problem and give them a regimen.”

Five Caudalíe lines target specific skin types and problems. One is for smoothing and firming. Another eliminates dark spots and increases radiance. A third corrects and prevent wrinkles. The forth adds hydration. The fifth line reduces oil and blemishes. And Premier Cru, introduced last year, treats all the signs of aging in a single cream.

Caudalíe introduces three new products a year, with each taking on average four years of research to develop. Next up is Premier Cru eye cream in January.

Thousands of U.S consumers are already familiar with the brand and Atlanta has its own converts. Perrine Prieur, owner of the newly opened Perrine’s Wine Shop in the Westside district, began using the products five years ago.

Prieur, the former sommelier of Joël Brasserie, thought Caudalíe seemed a natural fit for her boutique which stocks some 350 wine labels. Thomas thought otherwise.

"Bertrand thought a wine shop was strange," Prieur said. But after she explained her vision for the store as a wine shop with more to offer, Thomas was convinced.

Just to the right of the shop entrance is a shelf displaying the range of Caudalíe products. The spacious interior features a large table and rows of wines, including red and white wines from the family vineyard in Bordeaux. Prieur said she plans to host beauty events at the shop, which will include Caudalíe product demonstrations and education.

Perrine's wine shop was one of the stops on Thomas' itinerary during his visit to Atlanta last month, an example of the hands-on approach the company is taking to promote growth in the U.S.

“We could set up a good team and relax," Thomas said, "but we thought, ‘This is not what life is about.' ”

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