A New York Fashion show brings out the scary and the enlightened in droves, and this night at the Plaza Hotel, under the hot lights, a snaking line of gold-lacquer chairs was already filled with the stylishly ravenous. Some of them could even recall Truman Capote’s masked fantasia, in the same Grand Ballroom, where Diana Vreeland saw Penelope Tree across the floor and said, “We must have that girl.”
In the rows sat four beautiful and impossibly chic young women from Paris, the Courtin-Clarins girls. Boom, as they say in rocket science. Anna Wintour was struck. “I want to meet them,” she said, and one of her colleagues arranged it, much to the girls’ excitement.
Claire Courtin-Clarins, 24, was wearing a white Mugler fur jacket and silver Balenciaga tights. With her swimming-pool eyes, blonde hair, six-foot stature, and six-yard stare, she was like a supermodel from outer space. The other girls—Claire’s sister, Virginie, 26, and twin cousins, Jenna and Prisca, 25—were stunning too, in their Thakoon gowns. Wintour immediately ordered a portrait shoot the next day for Vogue’s April 2011 “Flash” section, in which she appointed them her new “It” girls. The guy from “Page Six” turned up when they were standing outside the Plaza and so did a horde of snappers. “At one point,” said Clarins attaché Melissa Barrett Rhodes, “we had to bundle them into an SUV and take them round the block.”
The girls retreated to Paris and refused interviews while they got on with their lives and their work. Yes: work. For these are not your average “It” girls or heiresses. Fashion seems to think so, anyway, and fashion is as fashion does. Even in that cynical and savage world, people are obliged to call a flower a flower when it grows right next to their noses.
Jenna, Claire, and Virginie were going up in the elevator at the Hotel Royal Monceau on the Avenue Hoche—Prisca was on her way separately. “You know, I would do anything for our grandfather,” said Claire. “He died in 2007. We were totally in love with him. He founded Clarins. He is my god and my way of thinking and everything. Like, I want to be the same as him. I’m sure if he were alive, he might not like this, us being photographed.”
“Yes, he would,” said Virginie. “When he died, we were too young. He was protective of us. We don’t want to be stars. We want to help the company that meant so much to him and still means so much to our fathers and us.” As she spoke, Claire put her hand over her head and stroked the back of her own neck. Her grandfather’s name is tattooed there in Chinese characters. “Our grandfather came from nothing,” said Virginie.
Today, Clarins is one of the most familiar skin-care brands in Europe. Founded in 1954 by French medical student Jacques Courtin-Clarins, it has since become a global brand with a reported turnover of $1 billion annually and a workforce of 6,000 worldwide. The company is now run by Christian Courtin-Clarins (father of Claire and Virginie) and his brother, Olivier Courtin-Clarins (father of Prisca and Jenna). The girls themselves perform as ambassadors of the brand, some more business-minded than others, though all four are shareholders and members of the Clarins “supervisory board,” and all are engaged in the task of projecting a fresh-faced future for the company. As well as their own side projects.
Here’s how to keep them straight: Claire has the beautiful alien look, with long legs and translucent skin; Virginie is the classic French girl with an open, sweet face and strong eyebrows and blonde tresses that she likes to stroke. (Their mother is the onetime model Corrine Maine de Biran.) Jenna is the rock-and-roll one: smoky eyes and a natural sense of wanting to make way for the talents of others. Prisca is classic forties: dark hair, green eyes, and skin that looks like it’s had skin-care products patted onto it since she was the merest baby. (Their mother is Anneli Courtin-Clarins: She, too, was a model, and she now does sculptures in bronze.)
We arrived at the penthouse, where the girls would choose bathing costumes for the shoot. They giggled and made jokes as they tried things on and staggered around having fun with shoes, some of them made by Prada with appliqué flames shooting off. The room is classic Philippe Starck, oversize lamps and smooth black or white surfaces, and in the hall there is a Pleyel grand piano (Chopin’s favorite), which the girls leaned up against while discussing the mechanics of the shoot while a nice-looking young Welsh guy primped their hair. “I don’t like having my hair done,” said Virginie when he had gone. “Done hair is so American. I prefer to have it natural.“