Lately, a riddle resembling a sphinx has been making the rounds in beauty circles. What is the most sustainable brand? The answer: The one that doesn’t exist. This counter-intuitive notion – to succeed by abstaining from gambling – came to mind on a recent afternoon in Paris, as I arrived at the great storytelling store, La Samaritaine. An escalator dropped me one floor below street level, where an immaculate grid of beauty kiosks sprawled out into a maze. Seemingly, every recognizable business, from fashion house behemoths to upstart boutiques, was there, hoping to win over the tourists who flocked to the temple of 19th-century retail. The magnitude of it all was palpable, as if the words beauty boom were rendered in a comic Lichtenstein font.
Such is the crowded landscape in which La Bouche Rouge finds itself, in this case stationed at a marble counter in the center of the sprawl. The brand’s refillable lipstick cases were arranged in an orderly row: gold, camel, pink, navy blue, an oxblood monogrammed with the initials FG, all wrapped in hand-stitched leather from the same tannery used by Hermès. Courting had begun, which was exactly the point when Nicolas Gerlier launched the high beauty brand in the fall of 2017. Its directive could be summed up succinctly: Waste not, want to.
“The world we live in was created by people 50 years ago,” says Gerlier, describing an “explosion in the way of consuming.” We sit down for coffee and chocolate chip cookies — his recommendation, as if signaling a well-chosen approach to indulgence — and the conversation revolves around industry standards. A genius Frenchman with a resumé deep in beauty (Armani, Lancôme, L’Oréal), Gerlier isn’t interested in blaming past business models. Instead, he wants to indicate a way forward, rooted in a philosophy of less, better. “We have a choice in the 21st century to create the beginning of the nightmare for humanity or the beginning of a new era,” he says, attributing some of his forward-looking sensibilities to fatherhood. So if La Bouche Rouge is on the side of making products, they must fit into Gerlier’s reinterpretation of the classic three Rs. “Rethink, recharge, recycle,” he says, before adding another imperative. “Create an object for life.”
La Bouche Rouge made a neat entrance. Makeup artist Wendy Rowe helped refine the original lipstick formulas (one soft-focus matte, the other satin), with ultra-clean and nourishing ingredient lists. Model Anja Rubik co-created an initial two shades, followed by an ongoing list of diverse collaborators: Chloe Sevigny, swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, the Yves Klein Archives on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of International Klein Blue (with a matching lipstick case). Over time, makeup offerings have gradually expanded beyond the mouth. In 2020, a refillable metallic compact – to be paired with powder blusher, highlighter or eye shadow – arrived with an accompanying leather pouch. A devastatingly chic glass mascara tube with a new castor oil-based brush took the charge away from the plastic. (The secret goth in me loved it even more after it broke on my bathroom floor. A leather case, perhaps in baby blue, would be advised.)
This summer’s novelties, cream blush and pink illuminating sticks, further complete the essential points of the minimalist beauty routine. “It’s a crazy formula that we developed in our lab,” says Gerlier, displaying the first test photos on his phone: pink blush on soft cheeks. Like lipsticks, these come by default in a sturdy paper tube, whether or not one chooses a fancy case. (For those who avoid natural leather, there is also a vegan substitute in black.)
But the latest triumph is largely hidden in plain sight. This would be the underlying mechanism of the lipstick tube, which is now made entirely from recycled aluminum, with no plastic whatsoever. A bullet-like marvel, it’s a small feat only in size – a feat informed by Gerlier’s visits to recycling facilities, where giant magnets pick up pieces of metal from a trash conveyor belt with audible noise . (That’s another word for the Lichtenstein treatment.) He’s not alone among the sustainability-minded beauty founders to revolve around the material. As Seduce reported earlier this year, the recycling rate for aluminum in the United States hovers around 35%, compared to about 9% for plastic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; Another familiar statistic is that nearly 75% of all the aluminum ever produced in the world is still in circulation. The catch is that creating new aluminum carries a heavy environmental burden, but in the meantime, the itch to keep plastic out of oceans and landfills seems, to Gerlier, like a step in the right direction. “I’m just trying to figure out how to limit the amount of waste,” he says. Perfection is an impossible goal; instead, it tries to focus on materials that can easily be recycled beyond the big cities, where the merits transcend greenwashing.
At the heart of it all is desire. Rethink, his first R, is Gerlier’s mandate to “change everything; nothing is impossible.” He sees habits changing not because of a sullen nudge, but because of active interest. Playing in the luxury space has its limits, but someone who adores a cherry-red lip balm in a pink-colored case could be taken to take that momentum further, swapping a much-loved reusable water bottle for emergency plastics.” The brand’s vision is to reconsider the luxury with durability,” he says — and, in truth, cool always has a way of making its way.