In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
While the trope of "French beauty secrets" may feel fully played out by now — the endless tutorials, the obsession with Bioderma! — we think it would be a tall order to find someone who embodies the culture of French beauty more than Caudalie co-founder Mathilde Thomas. (And not only because she's literally written the book on the topic.) Since its humble roots at her family's vineyard in Bordeaux where she administered facials on-site, Thomas — and her husband, Bertrand — grew the brand to a French pharmacy staple and now international power player, with 31 spas spanning the Americas, Europe and Asia.
I sat down with Mathilde at her newest boutique spa location, at Westfield World Trade Center, to discuss her career trajectory, commitment to environmental causes and what's next for Caudalie.
Tell us a bit about your childhood and growing up in France. Were you always interested in beauty?
I was passionate about scents. I wanted to work with noses and perfumers; I would recognize the fragrances of all my mother's friends, and they would be embarrassed, saying, 'Did I put too much?' I had a great nose. I didn't know what facet of beauty [I wanted to pursue professionally], but I knew from a young age I had a passion for fragrance, texture and natural skin care. Growing up in Grenoble, my grandmother taught me recipes with natural ingredients and at an early age taught me the importance of antioxidant-rich skin care. I originally wanted to work in the fragrance business and my dad encouraged me to do an internship. I started at Cacharel when I was about 15. It was incredible training [to work] around all of those amazing noses. When I create products now for Caudalie, the scent is an extremely important element.
What inspired you to create Caudalie, and how did you begin to develop products in the early stages of your brand?
One day, I met a doctor from the University of Pharmacy in Montpellier named Dr. Joseph Vercauteren who was visiting my family at their vineyard at Château Smith Haut Lafitte in France. He stopped in front of the big vat of grapeseeds and told us that we were throwing away treasures. That changed my life. We actually ended up creating the first grape extract-derived antioxidant skin care with him. The formulas have changed since 20 years ago, but Premieres Vendanges [Moisturizing Cream] was actually our first moisturizer. It's a basic hydrating cream. We have the Moisturize Recovery Cream, and also dietary supplements. We started with those three products.
The first spa you opened was in Bordeaux. How did you grow the business from there while still retaining the treatment-centric ethos of the brand?
Our first boutique was here in New York City! We came to New York to grow the collection in the Americas since we wanted to grow it here. And we decided that we would open our own retail store on Bleecker. In 1998, my parents decided to open a hotel on their vineyard and we said, "If you open a hotel, give us a room for us to do facials," because we had these masks and scrubs. And that’s how it was born. Now we have several spas and 24 treatment rooms.
You co-founded the brand with your husband, Bertrand. What has it been like to work alongside him?
It's great to work with my husband because I trust him. But it's tough also, since we're really different. One is the "right brain" and the other is the "left brain." Bertrand is about organization, strategy and selling the products, and I'm about developing new products with my team and branding them.
You recently moved to Hong Kong in an effort to grow the brand's presence in Asia. What has that been like?
We moved to Hong Kong a year ago and are loving it. It is night and day with New York City — people are very different so it's good for me and my family. That said, I'm amazed by the love that the Asian people have for skin care — American people are more into makeup than skin care — especially in Korea, where women will layer 10, 20 products on their skin. I’m very much inspired by the [products'] texture that I find in Japan and Seoul.
As such, you've really been pushing the boundaries when it comes to developing new products for Caudalie. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Right now I'm really inspired by texturized waters, and Asian women's obsession of having "watery" skin or translucent skin. I’m also amazed at all the sheet masks they have — the K-brands are very interesting and the Japanese brands are fantastic in terms of creativity and innovation. So, I'm looking very precisely into using my patents and the ones we developed and making very innovative textures.
Speaking of, we would love to hear more about what is was like to team up with Harvard Medical School to help develop the patent for the Resveratrol molecule.
It was fascinating, because we worked with the "Longevity Guru," Dr. David Sinclair, who has been named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. He is very, very smart and is doing truly revolutionary research. The patent we have in Resveratrol Lift is a skin-changer; not only does it plump and lift the skin, it teaches the skin to be young again by producing more hyaluronic acid — just like if you were going to get an injection. We've been working for years with Harvard Medical School, and inside, there is a patented ingredient where we mixed Resveratrol with hyaluronic acid and the result is amazing.
You recently collaborated with Jason Wu on a redesign of Caudalie's Beauty Elixir, similar to what the brand did with the late L'Wren Scott back in 2013. What made you want to work with Jason Wu this time around?
I've been a big fan of his work. I think he’s very talented and makes women look beautiful. I met him at my spa in the Plaza — he was coming to de-stress before the Met Gala and he became a very loyal client, coming every month religiously. He was using my Beauty Elixir and my scrub and so I met him and we became friends. A few months after that, I called him and said, 'Jason, would you like to 'dress' your favorite product?' It happened very genuinely. It was not in the board room.
You also recently pledged to donate 1% of your annual global proceeds to support environmental projects. What was your inspiration behind the gesture?
My husband and I are nature lovers. We love to hike and swim. And when we moved from Paris to New York, the [activism] environment was different. People are giving back and taking care of our community, and we felt inspired. I think the 'click,' the detonator was when we read this article about the founder of Patagonia. Yvon Chouinard is a fantastic man who created 1% For the Planet and so we called him and decided that we would join 1% For the Planet. We also recently secured a partnership with the National Forest Foundation and are dedicated to planting one million trees over the next three years in national forests in need of reforestation. It's very little, but it's the least we could do.
On a personal level, what does it mean for you to have created a brand that resonates with so many people worldwide?
I am so proud of what Bertrand and I have created. My husband and I started the company back in 1992 and only a handful of people believed in what we were doing. We even had speculation from our parents. What we were sure of was that we had a passion for what we were creating, and we surrounded ourselves with experts in the industry. It's really incredible speaking with clients around the world and hearing what they love about the brand.
Can you share a piece of advice for people looking to achieve their dream job?
My advice for people seeking their dream job is to stay focused! Pay close attention to details and finish all the products you start. It's important to see everything you begin through to completion.
What is your favorite thing about what you get to do?
I find that interacting with clients is one of the most rewarding parts of what I do. We often host events at our Caudalie boutiques or at Sephora stores and I love meeting customers and advising them on their skin-care needs. Technology has only made this easier; I am now able to communicate with customers through my Instagram account, @MathildeThomas. I am so grateful when I see people comment on how much they love Caudalie and how the products have benefited their skin. It is truly special for me.
And lastly, I have to ask: What are some of your favorite Caudalie products or the ones that you find yourself using most often?
I double-cleanse my skin with the Makeup Removing Cleansing Oil, you put it on your skin and then you emulsify it with water, and then I love my Instant Foaming Cleanser, and then the Micellar Water when I’m traveling and am in a rush. Then, I love to spritz my Beauty Elixir always, then I use a serum, which changes depending on the year. When I’m in Hong Kong, I use the S.O.S Thirst Quenching Serum, although in the summertime, it’s more brightening/correction, so I use the Vinoperfect Radiance Serum. And in New York, and in the wintertime, I like the Premier Cru Elixir. And for eyes, I use Premier Cru, too. It's the best.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.