The French Guru of Great-Looking Skin
In partnership with our friends at Chantecaille
The beauty of the French-girl look is its freshness and subtlety—so it hinges on incredible, natural-looking skin. Sylvie Chantecaille has been working a particular sort of French magic to help us all (every age, every skin tone) get that skin for her entire career. Her secrets? Exquisite textures that melt into skin; translucent pigments that flatter all but invisibly; skin care powered by the most effective, beautiful natural ingredients out there; and generous portions of joie de vivre. Here she talks about her lifetime obsession with foundation that flatters skin, why makeup remover shouldn’t hurt your eyes, how to make luxury skin care that really works, and more.
The culmination of her obsession with skin is Chantecaille’s new Real Skin + eye and face stick. “It’s sort of a concealer and a foundation all in one—a touch-up stick,” says Chantecaille. “In Asia, where they often like more coverage, women are using it all over their faces, and here, so far, it’s more a use-it-only-where-you-need-it product. Either way, what’s incredible about it is the way it blends, because of the sophisticated pigments we’re using, combined with raspberry-stem-cell extract and hibiscus extract for skin-care benefits. So instead of, say, 125 shades, you can match anyone’s skin with only 12 shades—it’s got this beautiful softness and transparency—it covers whatever you need it to, but the feeling is just…your skin.”
Chantecaille points out the difficulty of making such an easy-to-use, beautiful texture without the usual roster of cosmetic chemicals. “To look natural is a real trick,” she says. “It’s very difficult without silicones, for instance, but I hate silicones—using them is like cheating. They do nothing for skin. To do it right, you have to work harder and use ingredients that are actually nourishing. My lip balm was hard to create for that reason, but the end result is something much, much better.” The balm in question, a pinkish apricot with the most flattering bit of glow, is one of those no-makeup essentials that makes you feel prettier just smoothing it on.
“The real-deal ingredients are always so much better than the imitations,” she says, noting that the French have a long history of working with—and getting the best out of—naturals. Her cult-favorite (and first-ever clean) product, the Rose de Mai face oil, was the result of a deep dive into the benefits of roses on skin. “I went to the South of France with my brilliant Italian chemist, and we found this rare, incredible rose with just amazing benefits for skin,” she says. “We were both blown away—it’s so nourishing, and it really transforms your skin.”
The face oil was an immediate bestseller, so a body oil—the sheer luxury of which is hard to overstate—soon followed. Both oils smell delicately of rose and flood skin with moisture that sinks right in, so your skin (body and face) stays plump and hydrated all day (or night). There’s nothing like getting ready for a party and smoothing both on before getting dressed: You just feel fantastic, not to mention French, all over.
Chantecaille comes by her knowledge about formulas—and about luxury—honestly. She came to New York from France in the ’70s to start a beauty line with Diane von Furstenberg (the collaboration produced the blockbuster fragrance Tatiana, along with a chic store on Madison Avenue). From there, she had a long career as the product-whisperer for the Estée Lauder companies, which brought her on to create her own line (the wildly popular Prescriptives, which broke boundaries by offering 125 shades of foundation). Her focus on skin changed the beauty industry: Every highlighter, glow-luminizer, and imperfection-blurrer owes its existence to Chantecaille’s original aesthetic.
She started her own company at fifty-three, when she discovered some groundbreaking new ingredients in Japan. “It made your skin look not like foundation but like real skin, and I was like, this is a gold mine,” she recalls. “I’d come from a career where I’d learned a lot about results, about what makes a sophisticated, beautiful product, and I’d seen the kind of irritation and skin problems many of the chemicals that go into cosmetics can cause. I had personally been through a lot with Lyme disease—and I’d always been obsessed with naturals and alternative medicine. I was ready, and I went for it.”
Her philosophy, then and now, always starts with need: “I was lucky to know the designer Florence Knoll, a wonderful, brilliant woman, and she taught me that.” A need can be really simple. “Take makeup removers,” she says. “They hurt your eyes and don’t do the job. I took that problem—they were making me cry—and made something for gentle cleansing, almost like a micellar water: Totally natural, doesn’t hurt at all, doesn’t leave a film of oil on your face, and it takes off even really sophisticated liner.” Of course, it looks beautiful and smells faintly of roses, too.
Her latest focus: brows. “Your brows anchor your face, so you want something that’s neat and clean and makes you feel good,” says Chantecaille. “So much of what people use for brows looks (and feels) like hair spray or hair gel, hard and unnatural.” Instead, she again focused on beautiful textures and pigments to achieve what she wanted: “Something soft and perfectly defining and elegant,” she says.
“I have a passion for what things feel and look like,” she continues. “It’s a lot like cooking: I work on the smells and the textures, I have scientists on board to bring advanced new ingredients, and we work to make something beautiful and amazing.” That passion for beauty runs through Chantecaille’s life, from her style to her gardens, but perhaps its most powerful expression comes in her conservation work, which she goes deep on: She raises money tirelessly to preserve the oceans, along with all manner of endangered animals and their habitats. “Especially elephants!” she laughs. “We are so blessed to have elephants on this planet. They’ve been called Africa’s gardeners, so smart—and so beautiful.”
(Note: You, like Chantecaille, can adopt individual elephants through the amazing David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which her company works with extensively.)