Lately a sphinx-like riddle has been making the rounds in beauty circles. What is the most sustainable brand? The answer: The one that does not exist. That counter-intuitive notion—success by sitting out the game—came to mind on a recent afternoon in Paris, as I arrived at the storybook department store, La Samaritaine. An escalator deposited me one floor below street level, where an immaculate grid of beauty kiosks spread out in a maze. Seemingly every recognizable company, from fashion-house juggernauts to boutique upstarts, had a presence, in the hopes of winning over tourists streaming through the 19th-century retail temple. The very muchness of it all was palpable, as if the words beauty boom were rendered in a Lichtenstein comic-book font.
Such is the crowded landscape in which La Bouche Rouge finds itself—in this case, stationed at a marble-topped counter in the center of the sprawl. The brand’s refillable lipstick cases sat in a tidy row: gold, camel, pink, navy, an oxblood one monogrammed with the initials F G, all wrapped in hand-stitched leather from the same tannery used by Hermès. The wooing had begun, which was exactly the goal when Nicolas Gerlier launched the haute beauté brand in the fall of 2017. His directive could be summed up succinctly: Waste not, want.
“The world we’re living in has been created by people 50 years ago,” says Gerlier, describing an “explosion of the way to consume.” We are sitting down for coffee and chocolate chip cookies—his recommendation, as if signaling an approach to well-chosen indulgence—and the conversation is circling around industry norms. A genial Frenchman with a deep résumé in beauty (Armani, Lancôme, L’Oréal), Gerlier isn’t interested in heaping blame on earlier business models. Instead, he wants to point a way forward, rooted in a philosophy of fewer, better. “We have the choice during the 21st century to create the beginning of the nightmare for humankind, or the beginning of a new era,” he says, ascribing some of his future-leaning sensibilities to fatherhood. So if La Bouche Rouge is on the side of making products at all, they must fit into Gerlier’s reinterpretation of the classic three Rs. “Rethink, refill, recycle,” he says, before adding one more imperative. “Create an object for life.”
La Bouche Rouge made a soigné entrance. Makeup artist Wendy Rowe helped fine-tune the original lipstick formulas (one a soft-focus matte, the other satin), with ingredient lists that hewed ultra-clean and nourishing. Model Anja Rubik co-created two early shades, followed by an ongoing list of wide-ranging collaborators: Chloë Sevigny, Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, the Yves Klein Archives on the 60th anniversary of International Klein Blue (with a lipstick case to match). Over time, the makeup offerings have steadily expanded beyond the mouth. In 2020, a refillable metal compact—to be paired with powder blush, highlighter, or eye shadow—arrived with an accompanying leather sleeve. A devastatingly chic glass mascara tube, featuring a novel brush made from castor oil, led the charge away from 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 additions, cream blush and dewy highlighter sticks, further round out the essential points of a minimalist’s beauty routine. “It’s a crazy formula we have developed in our lab,” Gerlier says, pulling up early test photos on his phone: rosy flushes on soft cheeks. Like the lipsticks, these come by default in a sturdy paper tube, whether or not one springs for a fancy case. (For those who steer clear of natural leather, there’s also a vegan substitute in black.)
But the latest triumph is largely hidden from view. That would be the underlying mechanism of the lipstick tube, which is now entirely made from recycled aluminum, using no plastic whatsoever. A bullet-like marvel, it’s a small feat only in size—one informed by Gerlier’s visits to recycling facilities, where giant magnets pick up bits of metal off a conveyor belt of trash with an audible clang. (That’s another word for the Lichtenstein treatment.) He isn’t alone among sustainability-minded beauty founders in circling around the material. As Allure reported earlier this year, the rate of recycling for aluminum in the U.S. hovers around 35 percent, compared to about 9 percent for plastic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; another familiar statistic is that nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced globally 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 feels, to Gerlier, like a step in the right direction. “I’m just trying to understand how to limit the quantity of waste,” he says. Perfection is an impossible aim; instead, he’s trying to focus on materials that can readily be recycled beyond big cities, where the merits transcend greenwashing.
At the core of it all is desire. Rethink, his first R, is Gerlier’s mandate to “change everything; nothing is impossible.” He sees habits shifting not as a result of glum nudging but through active interest. Playing in the luxury space has its limits of scale, but someone who adores a cherry-red lip balm in a rose-colored case might be moved to carry that impulse further, swapping in a much-loved reusable water bottle for emergency-thirst plastics. “The vision of the brand is to reconsider luxury with sustainability,” he says—and, in truth, what is cool always has a way of catching on.