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.