Fifty shades without grey, please

The Brand That Turned Back Time

At 4.41 am on the morning of 25 July 1909, someone gave the signal that the sun had risen, and Henri Blériot, the inventor of the car headlamp, took off into history. He was flying his monoplane, the Blériot XI, at a speed of 45 mph and an altitude of about 250 feet and was hoping to make the first successful flight across the English Channel. Soon after take-off, his visibility deteriorated and lacking a compass. He felt very alone in the morning mist until the thin grey line of the English coast came into view and with it Le Matin’s correspondent waving a large Tricolour. Bleriot circled twice to lose height and made a pancake landing near Dover Castle, shortly afterwards claiming The Daily Mail’s £500 prize.

When we think of Paris of La Belle Époque, it’s easy to conjure the city’s great cultural happenings: Proust’s searching for lost time, Matisse experimenting with expressionism in his paintingsor Erik Satie trying to make a living as a pianist at Le Chat Noir. But as Blériot’s success shows, La Belle Époque was also a fantastically creative time for French science and enterprise, which also saw the foundation of Renault and Citroen and one other great French brand icon.

Five days after Bleriot’s flight, La Société française de teintures inoffensives pour cheveux started trading in offices close to the Louvre in Paris. The leading light of the new enterprise was Eugène Schueller, son of a baker who had left Alsace following the German invasion in 1871. Schueller was a graduate of the Institute of Applied Chemistry in Paris and was now being mentored by Victor Augur, one of the leading science Professors of the day at the Sorbonne. 

Clients posed all kinds of problems in need of a technical solution. One of these, brought by a hairdresser, was also one of the biggest consumer problems of all time: how to re-colour greying hair with lifelike colours without the risk of aesthetic embarrassment or toxic shock. People had been dying their hair for centuries, but most traditional methods were not very effective and could be very dangerous because of the lead content used in many of the dyes. 

HG Wells had recently published The Time Machine, and now Schueller and his partners filed patents for a unique hair colouring system that would claim to turn back the clock and promised the women who used it that they would no longer age. The brand name that the company used in 1909 was Auréole – the circle of light or brightness that radiated around the head as depicted in art. But we know this company today as L’Oréal.

From the brand’s beginning, two very different goddess archetypes, Minerva (science) and Aphrodite (beauty), inspired and powered L’Oréal. Never short of controversial opinions, Schueller wrote, “we are in a century of beauty, of luxury and of art…where the first goal of the elegant woman, whether she admits it or not, is to be beautiful and to stay beautiful.” Combining science-based beauty with a natural flair for marketing made the new company unstoppable. With the cry of “Plus de cheveux gris! all the hair salons of France were soon demanding L’Oréal colours. The success in B2B was soon followed by the similar success of sales to the consumer via pharmacies. All this laid the foundations for L’Oréal to become in the century of beauty as foreseen by Schueller, one of the world’s greatest brands.

Suitable Music for the Salons:

Sports et divertissements Erik Satie

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