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Caroline Greyl on the Legacy of Leonor Greyl

Born from the city of love, sparks flying in Paris during student demonstrations, and pink carnations overflowing into its cobbled streets - Caroline Greyl, daughter of Leonor and Jean-Marie Greyl, grew up in the Institut of her parents creation. The Institut de Leonor Greyl, a holy sanctuary of haircare, understated yet elegant, taking in the dry and damaged, and giving them new life. For fifty years, the Leonor Greyl brand has been family owned, under the control of the strong Greyl women, with their significant others working their magic behind workshop doors. When Caroline took over her parent’s as head of the company, she vowed to take it international. Today with over 10-million in sales, 50 employees, and over 500 stores in France alone, she has well and truly made her mark on the family legacy. We got talking to Caroline about the ins and outs of the holy Greyl.

GM Let’s begin at the beginning. How did your parents meet?
Caroline I like to say they met at the Moulin Rouge, back when there was a bar, rather than a discotheque.
This is the classic picture I have in my head. Although I know they did meet once before that, on holidays. Mother was with her sister, father with his friends, in the same small hotel, and she would open the shutters in the morning and he would be exercising in front of the window. He wanted to get her attention, and I guess he succeeded.

GM What is your first memory?
Caroline I guess my mum, always styling my hair. She wanted me to have the most amazing and original hairstyles, and if you look back at my yearbook photos, it’s funny - I have crazy braids, all that.

GM Were the other kids jealous?
Caroline No, no - we were too young to be jealous. That comes later in life.

GM How would you describe growing up in Paris?
Caroline I grew up in the countryside until I was five, and then I moved to Paris. But I am fully Parisian.
I’ve lived there for 45 years.

GM What does Parisian mean to you?
Caroline Relaxed, chic. The Parisian girl has one or two designer pieces, but otherwise uses simplicity to set that piece off. But to me, it is my friends around me, the stories, the history of Paris.

GM When did you first discover what it was your parents were working on? How did they explain it to you?
Caroline They didn’t really explain it to me. When I was a little girl my mum would take me to the Institute, and I would just have a great time. It was like a life-size dolls-house. Besides, they weren’t really the type of generation to explain much. (Laughs) It was more natural.

GM Was it always their intention that you take over Leonor Greyl? Was it always yours?
Caroline No, at the time it was more of question of whether it would last. And then, when we knew it was going to last, I was, maybe, 16 - and then they waited a little bit because I was going to be distracted. You have more things on your mind when you are that age. (Laughs) But when I finished my studies, I knew then that I was going to take an international path - my father didn’t speak English even - and Leonor Greyl was a good route.

GM If you weren’t running Leonor Greyl, what would you be doing today?
Caroline I was raised with these specific skills in this specific environment, so I don’t know, but something that took me to many countries and let me speak many languages.

GM Well, you made it. What differences do you notice when it comes to haircare internationally?
Caroline They tend to only wash their hair once a week, or go to a salon for a wash and blowdry, and then apply dry shampoo for the rest of the week. In Asia, they tend to wash their hair much more - sometimes even twice a day. But they wash their hair too fast - hair is a lively environment and so it’s important to leave it a bit longer. And we, in Europe, wash maybe twice a week, and go to the salon just to get cut or colour.

GM How did you change how you marketed Leonor Greyl across these different markets?
Caroline I didn’t. It’s important we have unity, seen the same and have the same philosophy wherever we are. It’s more a question of how much we educate the countries about what we do, rather than change how we present ourselves. Although in Europe I think we are considered more classical, like in Asia - and the USA more trendy and cool.

GM What is the most important lesson your family has taught you?
Caroline To be consistent, and let quality drive you more than money.

GM What is the biggest difficulty with working in a family run company?
Caroline Sometimes it’s difficult when you come back home, and you don’t want to talk about work.
Finding a fine line between family and work is hard.

GM You took Leonor Greyl global - what was the biggest challenge of this process?
Caroline It’s a struggle everyday. People are thinking about big companies, globalisation, and small companies are being bought-out every year. Being a family-owned company is tough because you are faced with multi-nationals as competition, and maybe you want to get into a department store which only takes ten brands - but it’s the way it goes. We may not have the same tools as the other large companies, but we are more attached to what we are doing and our formulas are full of soul.

GM People get attached to products they love. Did you ever witness one of your favourite brands sell out?
Caroline Yes, and it wasn’t the same after that. I saw they changed the formulas, I could feel it. Same name, different product. Generally speaking, I think it’s important to lead with a good example: if you have good ideas, you can create good products, and you can do a good job while staying independent. If everyone sells out, everyone will continue to sell out.

GM It’s interesting that you can still catch so much attention, despite your modest packaging?
Caroline Yes, but we’ve been on the market for 50 years and hair-trends grew since the 70s when we started. In 2000, suddenly there was an explosion of colour and toxic products. And that boom meant that hair-care cosmetics like ours developed a good market. We were lucky enough to have already been around a while. Things change like that. I mean look at China - which we are not in, because we refuse to be tested on animals - that market is emerging fast, and more and more brands are pouring in.

GM How do you get the generation z to pay attention?
Caroline I am definitely from another generation but I hired a gen z recently. I gave her the philosophy of the company, and asked her to transform it into her own vocabulary. Keeping young people in our company, who express things differently via the modern tools, helps us learn everyday.

GM Young people are also more interested in quality products nowadays.
Caroline Yes, but digital will never replace a real service. When you don’t know, you need real advice, and to really explore, not just on Instagram.

GM Do you find younger people come to the Institut as well?
Caroline I was studying the profile of my customers. 25% is between 18-25, which is the same as the following three age categories. So our average age is around 40 years old, but we are split evenly across all four. And that makes sense, because you may not need serious hair-care until you are a bit older.

GM Famously Kirsten Dunst’s hair was saved by Leonor Greyl treatments after her role as Marie Antoinette -
do you have any other stories like that?
Caroline I do. But I am not the type of person to give away those types of things. (Laughs) It is a mark of respect when somebody comes to you asking for your help that you don’t run off telling people how terrible their hair was. It’s better this way. I don’t talk, the product talks. Besides, if Mrs Smith is as happy as a celebrity, I did my job properly - she is just as important as any filmstar.

GM Well, we’ll try to get some secrets out of you! What happens behind those closed workshop doors?
Caroline It was my father, now it is my husband - Tom. Back in the day, my mum used to go to my father and say what problems she would see out in the world, and he would create the product based on that observation. The same happens today with me and my husband. We test it on ourselves, and once we’re happy, we give it to the Institute to try it on the customers. Of course, they know when they’re trying new products. If we suspect it’s as efficient as we think it is, we put it through much deeper tests, and then we launch it. But of course, we take a long time to be happy with the perfume, the texture, the formula. You have to have patience. Although, ironically, the results of your patience must be efficient product. In this day and age, in the busy city, you cannot ask a person to leave a product on their head for 45 minutes! (Laughs)

GM Listen to your world, listen to your customers.
Caroline Good resumé!

GM What are your favourite ingredients to work with?
Caroline I love oils. Not necessarily essential oils because they can be irritants, but otherwise they can achieve so much with so little. We have five oils which we go back to again and again, they really do the job. If you have a sensitive scalp, want to strengthen your hair, even want to reduce how oily your head is, use oils and it works so well.

GM Sometimes the simplest things do the most. It feels as if many companies create dozens of shampoos, but you took a much more minimal route. Is it just that they don’t know the secrets of simplicity?
Caroline Yes, it’s simplicity and it’s specificity. Sometimes I see a brand releasing the same product under different names. It’s to expand their space on the shelf. Is it necessary? I don’t think so. And with climate change, we must condense and contain as much as we can - especially when it comes to packaging. We have to be careful.

GM What are you danger-words when shopping for these products?
Caroline It’s difficult to say, but what I would say is that if you find a product which says, say, Rose Shampoo. Just because there’s 0.2% Rose Extract, doesn’t mean rose has anything to do with it. And I avoid Silicon. It’s a plastic, and it creates a barrier which lets nothing get through. People may feel their hair is shinier, but it’s just a shell and the more you use it, the easier it breaks.

GM So, Caroline, where do you want to take Leonor Greyl next?
Caroline I want to take us to a more ecologically friendly place. The bottles we use are recycled, but we want to create something which will dissolve. Today a plastic bottle takes 200 years to dissolve, we want one that will do that after 10 years, and will not leave microparticles. I’m working on that, but it takes time. This is one thing I am impatient about.

GM Favourite place in Paris?
Caroline There’s a bistro across the street from where I live. I like the ambience, it’s very French, everybody’s talking to each other.

GM Favourite place in America?
Caroline California. It’s beautiful.

GM Favourite place you’ve never been to?
Caroline I would like to go to Argentina. I love tango. There are so many things there which fascinate me.

GM Leonor Greyl in five words?
Caroline Natural. Consistent. Respectful. Quality. French.

GM What does “beauty” mean to you?
Caroline Beauty is internal as much as it is external. If you don’t feel good inside, you never will look good outside.

GM Your weekly hair care regimen?
Caroline Shampoo, mask, live-in treatment, and a styling product to protect my hair. And I change my shampoo according to the climate. If you’re at the beach, it’s different from the winter, with the water quality, sunlight - all these things are important.

GM Your Dream Appointment?
Caroline Alexandre de Paris. That guy was such a genius. My father used to work with his company, and I met his staff, but the man himself - oui!

GM What’s the first thing you notice when meeting someone?
Caroline Their hair, I wish I could see anything else, but it’s always hair. I guess that’s normal for somebody like me.

GM Imagine Alice in Wonderland needs your hair care, which products would you recommend to her and why?
Caroline A spray, because there’s a lot of magic in Wonderland. I think a spray which worked its magic and moisturised her hair, detangled it, gave her shine - a Wonderland spray.

GM Does Art imitate Life or does Life imitate Art?
Caroline Life imitates Art… or Art imitates Life. It depends on the type of art, the type of life.

Once you go Greyl, you never go back.