When Armand Petitjean founded Lancome in 1935 he was already fifty years old, with several careers, several countries, and several lives behind him. These previous lives were to influence the development of the brand’s identity, and he was never to forget South America，whe he had long worked as an importer of manufactured goods from Europe; nor would he forget his successful period with the French Foreign Office. And then there was his collaboration with Francois Coty, who had initiated him to the perfumer’s subtle art, and from whom he had just parted, to create his own brand.
Coty was renowned as the father of modern perfumery, and had created rare and exclusive fragrances, but in Petitjean’s eyes he had committed the ultimate crime: in search of volume, he had gone down-market. Armand Petitjean was going to take up the challenge; his was to be a prestige brand, or nothing.
And he was not alone. A group of colleagues was ready to undertake the adventure with him. Among them were the d’Ornano brothers, the chemist Pierre Velon, and Georges Delhomme, Coty’s former design director. All of them had admired their leader, all had felt deceived by the new turn of events.
While they were creating their first products, Armand Petitjean was also searching for a name for their new business. At one point he considered using the name of the village where he was born, Saint-Loup, but it did not sound feminine. He dreamed of a name that should have a truly French sound, that would echo famous historical names like Brantome, Vendome… Guillaume d’Ornano suggested the name of a chateau in the Indre department, named Lancosme. All they had to do was to change the silent “s” for a circumflex , and the result was perfect – a French name that everyone could pronounce, written with the specifically French circumflex. Lancome, symbol of Franee.
Armand Petitjean was short, with a meticulously kept moustache and pointed beard, always impeccably dressed with pastel shirts, white collar and cuffs. He was extremely courteous, always taking his hat off to even his humblest employee, but his eyes—an innocent sky-blue when he wanted to charm someone——could change in a second to a steely gaze. He was, it seemed, always on his guard, always totally self-controlled, in the service of the task he had set himself.
“Why did I create Lancome?” he said one day, “Because I had seen that two American brands had taken control of the beauty industry. A French brand should be up alongside them.”
Petitjean orchestrated Lancome’s first appearance with great skill. In 1935, he launched five new fragrances simultaneously, presenting them to the world at the June opening of the Universal Exhibition in Brussels. For the period, these were surprising perfumes, surprisingly packaged, with a richly baroque character at odds with the fashion for minimalism. Tropiques, Conquete, Kypre, Tendres Nuits, and Bocages, as well as their bottles ornamented with gold, orchids, green forests, or moldings of cargo ropes, were a snub to the ascetically geometric Art Deco of the moment. As their creator, Georges Delhomme, was to say later, “During the thirties, less of anything was more chic. In your apartment, nothing on the walls. If you had a new painting, you showed it to visitors, then put it away. Perfume bottles were square or rectangular, flat. We wanted to do the opposite.” This quintuple launch had been carefully calculated. For Armand Petitjean, a perfumer didn’t exist unless he had international status. He had to offer fragrances to suit every taste, for all women, on all five continents. In fact, Petitjean succeeded in capturing a world of multiple cultures in each fragrance. Here’s how he described his perfumes some years later to a class of techniciennes at the Ecole Lancome:
“…Tropiques is like honey. With its heavy coating of spices and aromatics it frightens off most of the English and the northerners, although it may appeal profoundly to women of society and artists. Conquete, a concentrated fragrance of roses on a chypre base, will please any woman who likes to be noticed when she enters the theatre or a restaurant. The freshness and relaxed style of Bocages is perfect for younger women and will seduce Swedes, Norwegians, Belgians, Germans, and the women of northern France. Kypre should be treated like a Burgundy; it needs to age in the bottle, like the wine. In our climate, it is more of a perfume for winter and for festivities, but in the East and in South America, it appeals in all seasons…”
The man who created these five fragrances was, bien sur, ver attracted to women. And whether they were from the north or the south, society ladies or artists, he dreamed of them as, above all, elegant. One of the earliest advertisements for Lancome shows us two women, a brunette and a blonde, wearing sumptuous negligees and seated by a long oval dressing mirror. The silky garments flow over their bodies, illustrating without revealing; their hair is permed, their eyebrows plucked; and the blonde is holding the special Lancome perfume bottle, its stopper encrusted with glass jasmine flowers. It is the quintessence of thirties’ elegance and of Petitjean’s idea of beauty, which he saw as inextricably associated with elegance. And isn’t elegance what France does best?
The result of the launch was excellent for the image of Lancome; the five fragrances won a double medal at the Brussels exhibition. But sales figures were less brilliant – perfumeries didn’t know what to make of this new-born brand and didn’t support the product. Petitjean’s bold gesture, however; clearly revealed the heights of his ambition.
The following year, he nevertheless had his feet firmly on the ground and let fall this historic description: “Perfume is prestige, the flower in your buttonhole. But beauty products are our daily bread.”
Because he wanted to reinvent the concept of beauty he turned to science, with the aid of Dr. Medynski, a professor at the veterinary research establishment in Maisons-Alfort, just outside Paris. He had recently discovered how to stabilize horse serum, an essential step in creating more effective skin-care products. Together, Medynski and the industrial chemist Pierre Velon perfected a nutrient cream which contained not only natural serum but also active ingredients based on proteins and vitamins. This innovation was called Nutrix. “La Nutrix,” as it was known, was described as “a regenerating night cream,” and quickly became a panacea, used for sunburn, stings from plants and insects, chilblains, frostbite, and razor burn. The British minister of defense even recommended it in the fifties as the only known remedy for radiation burns in case of nuclear war….
The sales promise, too, was astonishingly in advance of its time: “Nutrix guards against skin deficiencies by encouraging the skin’s self-defense mechanisms.” It is an approach which foreshadows the biomimetic research that is one of the major activities of Lancome today. In passing, it is noteworthy that Nutrix has become a skin-care product fetish and still has many supporters.
In 1938, Lancome makeup, which had been in existence since 1935，took its turn center stage, when Armand Petitjean created another counter-current product. At that time, the fashion was for indelible lipsticks that lasted because they dyed the lip tissues. Unfortunately, they also dried out the lips. Petitjean created Rose de France, a pale pink lipstick with a soft texture that would give the customer “lips…soft and gleaming like a baby’s.” It was a sensual product, with a rose fragrance, and, supported by the Conquete line of face powders (in eighteen shades, from golden brown to palest ivory), it was to be a best seller until the fifties.
The brand had rapidly established itself with three branches of cosmetic activity, each with its own emblem: a rose for perfumery, a cherub for makeup, and a lotus flower for skin-care products. In 1939, Lancome was only four years old but had already established its international ambitions by opening up markets in all the corners of the world. Orders were coming in from Oslo, Bogota, Algiers, Shanghai… And it was at this point that World War II broke out.
The War in 1914 had changed Armand Petitjean’s destiny in South America, from importer to international man of affairs and spokesman for the French government. And in France, his new-born business had been a cosmetics producer like its competitors until World War II. But the shortage of materials meant halting production of fragrances, makeup, and skin-care products. The product catalog shrank. As happens with brilliant minds, this setback inspired a brilliant response. If production is restricted, we must use what we’ve got. Why not concentrate on training our people to the highest levels?
It was in this spirit that he created the Ecole Lancome, whose first classes were held in Paris on February 9, 1942, at the height of the war. Petitjean, who after the first great European conflagration had refused offers of posts as Ambassador and as Minister of Propaganda in Clemenceau’s government, was now preparing to train a battalion of women to be ambassadors for Lancome. It was his philosophy that these ambassadors would be the most elegant, most efficient communicators of the Lancome message. They could accomplish more than advertising. They were to promote the values of the brand and of French culture by demonstration and through what he called “propaganda.” He was convinced that direct word-of-mouth communication was the surest way to build a reputation. And, who better than women, trained and knowledgeable women, to talk to other women about beauty? Lancome, already the first cosmetics company to be conceived as a vehicle for cultural values, thus evolved a purpose-designed training center, where technical representatives were trained to promote Lancome—and thus, France – far and wide.
Hand-picked students——never more than twenty—— received a thorough scientific and artistic training at the Ecole Lancome. They studied anatomy and physiology, the technology of skin-care products and the techniques of selling (hence the name “techniciennes”). They had courses in drawing and modelling, in makeup – Charles Dullin, one of France’s leading theatrical personalities came to teach stage makeup – and of course, massage and auto-massage. Massage was at that period very much in vogue, with books on beauty devoting whole chapters to the subject.
“The true preventative against the stigmata of premature aging is facial massage,” reads Marie Marelli’s Les soins de beaute scientifiques, a very popular book published in 1936. One of the great names in this field was Professor Leroy, recognized as a master of massage at the Imperial Court of Japan, and it was one of Leroy’s pupils with an international reputation, Dr. Durey, who became the Ecole Lancome’s massage teacher. Surprisingly, he taught a special system of facial massage without cream or oil, le massage a sec, developed especially for Lancome, because it enabled a more precise massage of the delicate facial tissues.
But Dr. Durey’s massage went further than the simple physical treatment. He insisted that the body and mind had to be treated together. “You can only give an effective treatment if you are sympathetic,” he wrote, “The beauty adviser who feels, ‘How pleased I shall be to see this woman become more beautiful,’ already has hands that have unconsciously become more tender, more adaptable and benefic; waves of energy flow through her in an instinctively beneficent rhythm. As the treatment begins, movement by movement a harmony is created between the two people. The aura of the beauty adviser is activated. The patient relaxes, even sleeps.” This is a massage, and a message, that the Institut Lancome could still be proud of today.
The perfumery course was given by Armand Petitjean himself. There exists a copy of his course notes, typed on onion-skin paper. And as he left no interviews, it is the only record of the way he spoke. Here we find the trace of Coty, the great Coty at the height of his powers and fame: “Coty was a builder. In front of his chateau at Montbazon, he had a terrace built that created the same impression as his fragrances: clear, solid, magnificent. In his view, a drawing room could not be other than circular or oval. Galleries had to be broad. His fragrances were conceived along just these lines.”
Petitjean regretted the passing of the fashion for clear fragrances – those from a single flower. This was mostly because of the influence of the couturiers, who introduced far more complicated perfumes and made women accustomed to violent and powerful scents.
In expressing his strong opinions, Petitjean was a master of the sound bite, once saying, “l’art du parfumeur est de fixer l’aerien” – “the perfumer’s art is ‘to give to airy nothing a local place of habitation and a name'” (borrowing an equivalent turn of phrase from Shakespeare). Explaining that certain perfumes change in contact with different types of skin, especially if the woman is taking medicines, he said, “Arthritis and red hair are the death of jasmine.” His character comes through clearly from these notes: “Conquete was a demonstration of willpower. Mine. Conquete was a symbol. It was necessary to conquer the world to make the reputation of Lancome.”
After the war, Petitjean was indeed able to survey a number of conquests. While his perfumes hadn’t in fact conquered the world – events were, to say the least, unfavorable – he had been able to conquer a wide feminine market: the skin-care market. Because of his rigorous “no substitutes” policy of quality at all costs, he had created “Nutrix hunger” and an effective word-of-mouth support for Lancome skin-care products.
But Armand Petitjean the perfumer was fretting with impatience, and in 1947, he launched Marrakech. The bottle, an amphora flanked by palmettos in solid glass, had been designed by Marc Lalique, but the technical problems were too great. He passed the project to Georges Delhomme, whose hands-on knowledge of glass and glassmakers was unequalled (“You have to get your face burned over the furnace to understand”). He got it right the first time. This beautiful bottle and its magnificent presentation case, which today earns record prices at auction, were the forerunners of the brilliant launches to follow.
In 1950, perhaps the apogee of Petitjean’s administration, Lancome launched Magie. Petitjean had dreamed of this perfume for years. He had conceived of the fragrance, based on aromatic woods and splashes of jasmine, and had made over a thousand tests with George Leplieux，the Lancome “nose.” His conception for the bottle was a crystal torsade, which was brought to life by Georges Delhomme. It was perhaps one of the most spectacular creations of the fifties.
Two years later Tresor, the first Tresor, was born. This was refined oriental perfume, presented in a sumptuous crystalline container cut like a diamond. To celebrate the launch, Petitjean held a grand fete at the Palais de Chaillot, in Paris, at which guests could watch Tresor dance with Magie in a ballet by Serge Lifar, with music by Henri Sauguet. Some very pretty pages of advertising from the period still exist in the Lancome museum. One shows the bottles set against a starry night sky; the other, also against a background of stars, has two fairy-tale characters, the Eastern Prince Tresor tenderly holding the hand of the fairy Magie. The two were inseparable, at least in the world of advertising.
During these early years of the fifties, Armand Petitjean was a contented man. His family life made him very happy. He lived at Les Vallieres, a villa surrounded by extensive grounds, dominated by one of the most majestic Gingko trees in France, with a rose garden that was celebrated for its perfection. His wife Nelly was a passionate orchid grower and a talented flower arranger, whose bouquets and table decorations were a delight. Sunday lunch was a real family institution, with fifteen people (including seven children) and at least two or three guests whom Petitjean wished to honor. These included writers such as Jean Giraudoux, eminent medical specialists, and also potential Lancomian high-fliers being given a look-over by the patron himself.
On weekdays, he was a regular restaurant-goer. Lunch at Maxim’s or Lucas Carton, meals at Laperouse with the techniciennes, and every New Year a grand dinner at the Plaza Athenee for all the executives. Women got out their long dresses; men rented dinner jackets; and after speeches and a meal of splendor and elegance, all worked out to the last detail, there was music and dancing until dawn. Petitjean loved to dance, especially the waltz and the tango.
For the great charity balls and other high society events which were held at this period, he provided gifts of his fragrances in specially created, limited-edition bottles. Some, such as Bouquet de Violettes or Les Danseurs, have become extremely rare.
Petitjean the businessman was as happily situated as Petitjean the family man. His succession was assured—not by his son, Armand-Marcel, who had always said he would never work for his father, “that magnificent tyrant,” but by his grandson, Jean-Claude, who accompanied his grandfather everywhere, studied perfumery at the plant, learned ten languages, was an accomplished sportsman and athlete, and was being brought up as the future Lancome Superman.
The brand image was equally satisfying: Magie and Tresor had raised Petitjean to the status of a great name in perfumery, and women fought for his lipsticks in their finely wrought golden cases, manufactured at his jewelry plant near Annecy.
And his techniciennes, his international ambassadors, were spreading the good word all over the world. In Moscow, Nina Gaucher，of Russian descent, charmed President Khruschev and won an order of grandiose dimensions. Cecile Cristofini was sent to Central America, where Armand Petitjean asked her to persuade the local agent to pay her expenses – her ticket alone had already cost him a small fortune. The local agent agreed – and in the next few months Cecile gave personal makeup instruction to more than a thousand women … In New York, Simone de Reyssi, the little Parisienne, had an outrageous impact. She lunched every day at La Potinierev surrounded by buyers and journalists. One of them wrote, “Before you’ve finished your coffee, Simone’s magic has worked its spell and you’re convinced that Magie is the only fragrance in the world …” Wherever they went, Lancome’s ambassadresses were received like stars. In Africa, heads of state and governors welcomed them to their palaces. In Australia, there were television interviews; everywhere they went there was a half-page in the biggest daily paper…. But to win this influence, these women had had to learn it all, not just the physiology and drawing and languages, but how to do everything, from skin-care treatments and makeup to assisting a regional representative with local customs, obtaining import licenses, packaging shipments, replacing a representative at a moment’s notice, developing new markets, and, of course, sending a daily report to “Monsieur P.”
Monsieur P. had succeeded in his effort to expand his markets. Restrained during the war and the years immediately after it, exports were now booming. In 1955, Lancome products were on sale in 98 countries through 33 general agents, of which nine were direct subsidiaries. Lancome’s representatives were tireless – some of them even went literally around the world twice a year. Naturally, some countries were less welcoming -China, for example. But Armand Petitjean made no secret of his ambition – “I dream of one day selling a lipstick to every woman in China.” He had built his empire; he was its uncontested sovereign and deserved his nickname – Armand the Magnificent.
But states of grace do not last long, and suddenly it seemed that fortune, so long at his elbow, had deserted him. In 1955, Petitjean’s wife died. He was devastated by her loss and seemed to lose something of himself. The following year, his adored grandson, Jean-Claude, decided that he was going to go his own way and that he would not join Lancome. Suddenly, Petitjean felt that he had built his castle on sand – His control of the company – especially his emphasis on performance and quality in new product development – led to complications.
For the next surge of activity, he had put all his hopes in the newly developed Oceane line. It was in advance of its time – this was nothing new for Lancome – but it was too complicated. Based on the use of seawater and marine extracts, there were too many products with complicated classical names – Aphrodite, Triton, Neree, Neptune, and so on. Add the problems of a new system of classifying skin types that had five different categories, and it was clear that both representatives and distributors were going to lose their way, not to mention the consumers.
As he faced personal difficulties, he held on tighter to old certainties. At this period, he turned down an idea that was to revolutionize makeup sales, because it upset his notions of elegance. The new invention he was offered was the disposable lipstick case. “No woman worthy of the name would ever put such a horror in her handbag!” he exclaimed. He could not imagine for one second that an elegant woman, who chose her accessories with care, could ever prefer a shoddy plastic tube to his jewel-like gold-plated cases with their finely sculpted designs…The competition seized on the novelty, and Lancome’s magnificent lipstick holders – Shaker, Cle de Coquette and similar masterpieces of cosmetic jewelery – went into a free fall.
And it was just at this uncertain point in his fortunes tha work had been started on Petitjean’s show-piece production plant at Chevilly-Larue, located on the National 7 highway near Orly, the main airport for Paris. The ground had been purchased back in 1950 and marked off all around by an imposing iron grill. Within this fence was a superb estate consisting, for the moment, of shrubs and rose bushes. Early in 1957, the first stone was laid. The walls were to be of creamy Poitou stone, which keeps its color over time, and the roofing of Fumay slate, which at sunset takes on a purple tinge. Petitjean was driven to the site every day and told himself and many others that visitors leaving France from Orly would carry away, as their last memory, the sight of Lancome’s name spelled out in gold letters along the road to the airport. He had not foreseen the A6 motorway to Orly nor the new international airport that would be built at Roissy, north of Paris.
In 1961, the company’s financial situation became critical. Believing that he had no successor, Petitjean had poured his own fortune and that of Lancome into the construction of the new plant at Chevilly, just at a time when the cosmetics market was changing. The debts mounted up until the director of the company’s bank contacted Armand-Marcel Petitjean to tell him, “We no longer have confidence in your father. Lancome is a family concern. If the family doesn’t shoulder its responsibilities, we shall cut off all credit. You have 48 hours to make your decisions.”
It would shake anyone. But although Armand-Marcel had no business experience – he is a writer – he squared up to the task and took over from his father as provisional managing director, just at the moment the new plant was completed. So it was under his guidance that the move from Courbevoie to Chevilly was carried out, and on June 20, 1962, this aesthetically superb but functionally flawed “Versailles de la Parfumerie’ was inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance. The Garde Nationale formed an honor guard for personalities from politics and society. The weather was superb. The official photograph is a curious and moving document. It shows Armand and Armand-Marcel. Armand-Marcel is certainly looking at his father – watchfully? anxiously? But what is Armand the Magnificent really looking at with that quizzical expression? He seems to be gazing past his son at the splendid buildings, his lifetime’s achievement, which he is now powerless to touch.
Armand-Marcel was to spend three years at the helm of Lancome. Three years during which he had to try and adapt the brand to the new realities of the market. The Lancome team closed ranks and backed him loyally. Agents around the world responded nobly, often ordering products for a year or two ahead. Naturally, once they were overstocked, they would not be able to reorder easily, but Lancome desperately needed the money, both to pay off the mountainous debts and to maintain a viable level of activity in product creation and sales development.
Slowly at first, but then with increasing weight, the evidence piled up. Not only the banks realized the gravity of the situation, but the whole family was finally forced to see that the time had come to sell the business.
Suitors were not lacking. Rumor spoke of Revlon, Yardley, Payot. They all had a defect in common – they were not French.
When Frangois Dalle contacted the Petitjean family, his offer was built around the new financial vigor he could provide, using L’Oreal’s wide market penetration and very deep pockets to rejuvenate and give fresh impetus to the rich Lancome heritage. Negotiations were opened and finally concluded under conditions that satisfied both sides. Armand Petitjean died on September 29, 1970. He was 84 years old and had lived enough for three lifetimes. He had started modestly, had made and lost fortunes, had been an influential figure in the fierce excitements of the twentieth century, consorting with presidents and princes and the leading intellects and creative spirits of the day. It would please him to know that Lancome today sells thousands of lipsticks to the women of China, even if they are in disposable containers.
Lancome today is the leading French brand in selective perfumery, present in 163 countries. The infusion of energy and marketing know-how provided by L’Oreal has provided the strength needed to ensure Lancome’s survival without compromising the values that make up “the Lancome spirit.”
French cultural values and the French perception of elegance and beauty as a whole are still at the heart of the brand’s identity, The spirit of conquest and adventure is dynamically successful on a world-wide scale. The spirit of innovation has been amplified and perfected thanks to the extraordinary capacities of the L’Oreal laboratories, which reserve their most striking discoveries for Lancome, the group’s flagship brand. Almost every recent advance in skin-care products has been the fruit of this integrated effort. The spirit of creativity and joy is fully expressed through Lancome’s renowned makeup branch, with explosions of energy and imagination in every new collection. And the spirit of Petitjean’s original concept, of Lancome as a great perfume house, is demonstrated in all its subtle glory with successes such as Tresor, Poeme, and 0 oui!
Today, Juliette Binoche, Ines Sastre, Cristiana Reali, and Marie Gillain, like Isabella Rossellini before them, offer their multiple appeal to every woman in every country in the world. And in every major airport you will find the smile of one or the other of them and the phrase, “France has a word for beauty: Lancome.”
Armand Petitjean himself could well have chosen such a description of his dream, a dream which has today become a planet-wide reality.