How many beauty interviews and baguettes can you fit into 48 hours? Sigourney visited the home of Sephora and discovered a whole new approach to beauty retail – from an epic rockstar welcome at their flagship Paris store to a robot shop assistant – buying cosmetics is getting easier and more novel than ever before.
Two weeks before….
One Daydream PR who look after Sephora contact me to invite me to Paris to interview the Global CEO Chris De Lepuente and see how the French brand is innovating beauty retail. It’s a short trip – and I make it in even shorter - picking flights that give me only 2 and a half days on the ground (and 2 in the air) - as it will be my first trip away from Lulu. It’s going to be intense, but, hey, I’m up for the challenge. Sephora is such an interesting brand and I’m eager to learn more about their approach to beauty retail. And… well, it’s Paris.
Arrive at Charles De Gaulle after the 24-hour flight and a five-hour layover in Hong Kong. After battling my way through passport control and collecting my bag, Marcel, my lovely French driver whisks me into an airconditioned car and we crawl through rush hour traffic into Paris. Having left a chilly Sydney late at night and to now be suddenly driving through postcard streets, all bathed in beautiful soft afternoon sunlight, feels positively dream-like. No matter how many times I visit, Paris never fails to take my breath away.
Pull up at the gorgeous La Maison De Champs-Elysee Hotel. This chic boutique hotel was designed by Maison Margiela – and it bares the marks of their quirky yet irreverent elegance. I clock a room of chairs swathed in white sheets and beyond that, a line of black dressmaker dummys standing to attention. At the mirrored reception booth three impossibly good-looking staff trill “Bonsoir” at me. There’s no time to pause - I have thirty minutes to transform my cabin-crumpled self into a shiny, glossy beauty editor. Since I’m the last journalist to arrive – the other girls have already had a day or two over the weekend to acclimatize - I need to get moving. Once in the softly-lit room, I empty half a travel-sized can of dry shampoo in my hair and pile it into a top knot (insta-volume) before putting on the Sephora Aloe Vera tissue mask that was one of our welcome gifts. This thirsty mile-high dermis needs all the help it can get. After a shower, a truckload of concealer and a bit of a pearly champagne eye shadow on the inner corner of my eyes, I’m feeling nearly human. I tong some waves into my lifeless hair and throw on a dress.
I meet Sephora Australia Country Manager, Libby Amelia, and Marketing Manager, Megan Taylor, along with the other editors in the bar for cocktails and we walk to the iconic L’Avenue Restaurant on the Champs-Elysee. Owned by the Costes brothers (of famous Hotel Costes), this classic French restaurant boasts a rockstar position across from L’Arc De Triomphe, a sweeping staircase and quite possibly the thinnest, crispiest, most delicious French Fries I’ve ever eaten. After practically falling asleep in our molten chocolate pudding we head back to the hotel for an early night.
Jetlag strikes and so do about 200 emails. I ring in my first morning in Paris filing copy and responding to a days worth of missed work. The only problem with press trips is that real life doesn’t stop, so you have to fit your normal workday into the hours that you’re not following an itinerary. But no violins please, I promise I’m not complaining.
I do a quick walk down to the Seine and over the bridge, taking a shameless selfie in the golden morning light, figuring it may be my only chance to be a tourist before the day starts. After a breakfast of baguettes with perfectly-salted butter, croissants and crepes with Nutella (I’ve made peace with the fact that this is going to be all-out calorie fest. Hey life’s short. And so is this trip.) We walk to the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysee for a private tour. LV is obviously owned by LVMH, the conglomerate who own Sephora and also Guerlain, where we are going this afternoon. Guillame, the gorgeous French store manager takes us through the iconic store. The circular structure was modeled off the Guggenheim in New York, and is deliberately meant to make you get lost in the world of Vuitton. It’s not a bad world to be lost in, we all agree.
As we walk towards the Sephora flagship store we can hear music and cheering. There are about forty staff singing and clapping us in as we walk down the red carpeted entrance. Standing encouragingly at the end is Chris de Lapuente, the global president of Sephora. He tells us that the team do this rev-up at least twice a day to welcome in shoppers, the vibe is electric. I can see where the company tag line “Where Beauty Beats” comes from. All the beauty stands invite testing and there are free services like makeup, nail, lash and brow bars (in Aus they’re redeemable on purchase) to teach you new techniques. I try out the colour ID service where you have your skin tone read and it emails you a list of foundations that will match. There’s also a monogram station where you can have perfume bottles over 100ml engraved, and a gift wall where you can customize wrapping.
We head into the Guerlain store next door and downstairs to the Le 68, Guy Martin restaurant for lunch in the private room. Over an almost-too-beautiful-to-eat plate of steamed salmon and celeriac, Chris talks about the history of the brand (the first store was opened in Paris by Boots in 1969) and the future – the global expansion continues (100 stores open every year in the US alone) as do innovations in e-commerce and their app, so that they truly know the customer and can engage with them on every level. “There are currently five stores in Australia, two more opening before Christmas and more next year,” he says. “We’re feeling good about Australia and there’s no reason why we won’t have dramatically more stores.”
I ask Chris a barrage of questions and he answers every single one before bidding us goodbye. He is incredibly passionate and present, you can see why he’s just been promoted to the head of LVMH beauty brands worldwide. Upstairs in the Guerlain store we’re led on a fragrance tour. Martine, a chic French woman talks us through the history of some of the perfume house’s most famous scents, and their latest Maison Les Exclusifs collection. We wander back into the sun-drenched street in a haze of perfume.
We head back to the Sephora store to do some shopping – we’ve been eager to buy some of the things we can’t get in Australia. I leave with the banana-shaped hand cream and snail excretion tissue (ewwww) mask by Korean beauty brand Tony Moly and a collapsible Sephora nail file and buffer.
We head to Sephora Flash – a new retail concept for the brand. It’s a much smaller store size (800 – 1800 square metres) and it fuses e-tail with bricks and mortar in a truly unique way. On arrival you’re greeted by a little robot who gives you a plastic card, which is like your shopping cart. You can pluck any product off the shelf and hold it over one of the e-stations, which will bring up product information and give you the option to buy. Since they’re smaller in size, they don’t hold everything but still have a huge array of products to experience. You can buy on the spot with your little card and then choose to have your loot delivered the next day either to the store or home. There are even little lockers for charging your phone.
We have a couple of hours of free time before dinner so I whiz around the shops like a crazy person (score: one pair of vintage leather shorts from a consignment store) before heading back to the hotel to throw on another semi-presentable outfit .
We head to Ellsworth, a gorgeous little restaurant that serves the most delicious share plates of creamy ricotta, sweet cherry tomatoes and fried chicken. We debrief on the day and – naturally – talk turns to what cosmetics we use on ourselves. Whether it’s the rosé or just the fact that we are all impassioned beauty fiends, there are some very emphatic favourites among the group. (Don’t worry - I took notes and will publish our Sephora-all-timers edit very soon).
After a drink at Hotel Costes, the driver takes us past the Eiffel Tower so we can do the tourist thing. Back at the hotel, I deal with a few more emails while munching on the Toblerone that was left on my pillow (stress eating), before falling into a deep and dreamless sleep. It’s an early pick up for the airport tomorrow and I plan to devour at least two more croissants and a baguette with salted butter (mmmm) before heading back to the real world. It’s been a whirlwind, but I feel like I have a huge handle on Sephora and the future of beauty retail now. And possibly a bonus set of love handles, to show for it, too.
Story by Sigourney Cantelo.