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 rocketscience. 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.“
“But the hair stylist, he’s cute, no?” asked Claire.
“He’s 27. He’s Mark,” someone said. “And straight.“
“I got his number,” said Claire, smiling, as if getting a number was the least one could do if someone was nice. “Just fun, anyway. He was nice. It’s nice to have someone who knows you and knows your hair.”
When they were photographed, the girls behaved not like models but like sexy girls who know their best sides. They feel lucky, and it shows. But they are determined to establish that luck isn’t everything—each with the spirit to set herself apart. I saw Virginie arguing for her ideas at the Clarins factory. I saw Prisca facing the vexing demands of running her own business. I was there with Jenna as she tried to work out how to improve her technique through obsessive rehearsal, like any young photographer. And though it may sound strange to readers imagining gossamer heiresses, I was riveted by the work at Claire’s studio: Her geometric designs and artworks prove she is an exciting and stimulating artist, too.
A book of Man Ray photographs was sitting by a sofa, and Prisca looked at it and nodded. “My sister is a wonderful photographer,” she said. “She has been taking pictures of me. So sad. I sit in the bath, and Jenna takes pictures.”
“Pensive,” said Jenna. “A little bit sad. A little bit alone. I want them to be authentic.”
Someone asked Prisca, who co-owns a trio of nail salons in Paris called Nail Factory, if a beautiful person knows they are beautiful, and did she know it?
“I was so ugly,” she said. (Beautiful people always say that.) “No, I was. Very ugly, and I had no confidence. Now, I am all right.”
The next day, Claire, Virginie, and Jenna joined me for lunch. Melissa Barrett Rhodes was there. They ate lobster salads and talked their heads off about fashion, about how the French couture shows, happening that week, didn’t interest them much. “They’re for old ladies,” said Virginie.
Melissa asked what shows they would want to see in New York in February. “Do you want a stylist,” she asked, “like the one from last year, who can bring things and organize stuff and put it on a rack?”
Claire: “I would like to choose things. You should see our bedroom during Fashion Week. A disaster area. We go to the Crosby Street Hotel. It’s like a bomb has exploded in our suite.” Claire was wearing a pair of Acne jeans, flip-flop sandals, a T-shirt, and a beanie by Alexander Wang. Her cardigan was rainbow-colored; she had been pleased to find it in a street market in Guatemala.
Jenna was thinking it through. “I want to wear a French brand.”
“French?” said Melissa.
“Yes, because I’m French.” She said this not tartly but decisively, as if her own priorities should be factored in.
“I love Acne,” said Claire. “Love it. Because it’s so simple.”
The people in the restaurant seemed bored and uninterested in being themselves. They seemed as if they’d prefer to listen to the girls’ plans.
“I love Michael Kors,” said Claire. She ate her salad and ordered a Diet Coke and seemed to drift away, only coming back to the conversation to say that London was an ugly city. “I don’t like tiny windows,” she said. “Tiny doors. It is a midget city. I feel it is a city for people who do not like light.”
Jenna and Prisca’s apartment is on the Left Bank, on the Rue du Vieux–Colombier. The sitting room is large and white with high ceilings and a general air of family pictures, prized furnishings, and DVD-watching. Jenna had a glass of Champagne, and she walked me round with pride. “We love the past and the future!” she said. In the sitting room there are two raspberry-colored chairs by Hans Wegner with cushions from Conran. There is a large L-shaped gray sofa from Linea Rossa and a geometric coffee table. An orange lamp and various pieces come from the Galerie Clemande, owned by their mother’s friend Rose-Marie Burgevin. The shelves are full of things they love, like a little Leica camera and an old telephone the girls found in London (number KNIGHTSBRIDGE-6351).
There is a blown-up modeling picture of their mother from the seventies. She is Swedish and is 25 years old in the picture, the same age as her daughters are now. The girls began getting dressed to go out to a party that Tod’s was throwing in the Hotel Amour. “We won’t stay long,” said Prisca. The best part for them was getting dressed. On the way to Jenna’s bedroom there is a painting, a watercolor by Marie Laurencin, who was a friend of Picasso’s. “She was a lover of the poet Apollinaire,” said Jenna as we passed.
The Clarins’ 2011
Jenna loves her bedroom. She loves her Missoni curtains and bedspread. She loves her Bauhaus-y armchair by Norman Cherner, the rolls of film littered across the desk amid a tangle of Acne labels. “Four of the cupboards are for shoes,” she said. “There are two of us, and we have two feet each. That’s a lot of shoes.”
Beside Jenna’s bed lay a copy of Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution, halfway read. Jenna loves designer Thierry Mugler, whose perfume Alien is owned by Clarins and worn by each of the girls. A tan-colored Mugler trouser suit with revealing wrap top was spread over the bed. Jenna is friends with Nicola Fomechetti, the new designer for Mugler, and the top looks like it was invented for her. She wore it with tan Mugler spiked heels—weapons of minor destruction—and immediately worried about making a hole in the floor. To top it off, she donned a light-brown leather coat that had been sent over by Tod’s.
Prisca spends a lot of her time thinking about elegance, what it means, how to maintain it, how to spread it. I had gone to one of her nail salons earlier that day, and she spoke to me there of her determination to make the business work. “I love fashion, but it is not my life,” she said. “This is my life. I have raised the money for this business myself through the banks. I wanted to be independent by creating my own company, starting from nothing. I wanted to prove myself and show that I could do it without the help of my family. Every day I learn more and that experience is priceless, with all the difficulties that everyone knows who builds a company.”
But you will always be part of Clarins, I told her.
“Clarins is in my DNA since I was born,” she said. “Beauty and skin care is my domain. And I’m sure this entrepreneurial experience will prove essential when eventually I can bring something new and modern to Clarins.”
She is clearly very proud of her nail salons. She made me have a manicure when I was there, saying one is obliged to make an effort to achieve elegance. “Hands are the first thing that I look at,” she said. “They are always visible. For me, you always get to know about the person by looking at their nails and hand. A woman has to take good care of her nails; it’s a priority just like skin and hair, just an absolutely certain sign of elegance.”
In the car crossing Paris to the party, Prisca’s phone kept ringing. It was the PR guy from Tod’s, making sure they were coming, asking how far away they were. Prisca was wearing a leather-and-suede coat from Tod’s with a gray felt bodice, and she rested her phone on a Céline purse and smiled through her eyes. “This hotel where they are having the party,” she said, “it is one of those places in Paris that used to be a … what you say, brothel.”
“It will be superfun,” said Jenna.
When they arrived at the party, every head turned toward them. They saw some friends, but they couldn’t get to them instantly, as photographers lined up to flash their cameras at them. They lost the flashing cameras as they climbed the stairs to look at the rooms, but a video camera was at the rear, and it stayed with them. The music was loud, and the atmosphere suitably sleazy; Saint Etienne’s nineties classic “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was mixed in with a series of arias from Madama Butterfly. In one room, a boy and a girl wearing Tod’s—they were all wearing Tod’s—fooled around on a bed with a Polaroid camera, the bed surrounded with giant teddy bears’ heads. Jenna sat on the bed playfully in another room where a model was being painted.
“He’s cute,” she said of the boy on the bed with the Polaroid camera.
They swept from room to room, laughing and enjoying everything and swaying to the music. One room: A girl was being massaged on a table while a boy sat by and a bicycle was propped against a wall. In another: A guy with long hair sat alone playing a guitar in a Bollywood room with an empty bath in pink light. “I really love it,” said Prisca of the party. “I think it’s really good for Tod’s because it will modernize their image.” All over the hotel, people were using the words creative and artistic with gayer and gayer abandon.
“It’s not like New York here,” said Jenna, a little bit missing the number of looks she was attracting. “It’s not like all eyes are on you in Paris. When I was in New York, I thought, Oh my God, I haven’t looked, maybe I have something in my teeth.” The girls had to shout at each other to be heard over the soundtrack, being looked after by a fortysomething female D.J. wearing cerise leather trousers. Jenna spoke to someone who she thought might be the boy who worked for Acne who’s much fancied by her friend, Clemande. A friend of the girls appeared. “All the designers want them,” she said. “Because they’re beautiful and they represent the Clarins family, they’re admired. The girls don’t go to all the parties because they want to be billboards. They came because they like fashion and they are nice girls.”
We all went to a room where everyone was smiling and standing against the wall drinking cocktails and watching episodes, against a blaring blues soundtrack, of the seventies American TV crime drama The Manhunter. “We’re putting on Planet of the Apes next,” said a teenage boy with wildly pomaded hair.
Christian and Olivier, the two Courtin-Clarins fathers, met us one day in the restaurant of the Hotel Royal Monceau. The girls were fresh as anything. They looked like gazelles moving in some equatorial region that is all light, all shine. Jenna was wearing a dogtooth-pattern full-length dress by Acne and a dark sheepskin biker’s jacket also by Acne and Jil Sander boots. Prisca was in an Isabel Marant dress and a Mugler fur. Claire and Virginie were dressed to the nines too, and their father, Christian, wore a perfect dark suit and a sky-blue tie, a tie to match, one suspects, his thinking as well as his eyes. Olivier was more silent at the table and possibly the family’s deep thinker, as behooves his medical background.
They all have a family-firm attitude about promoting the brand, which is how the girls understand their usefulness. Virginie and Prisca are business-minded,” said Christian, “and the other two are artistic. Our daughters are giving us the new trends. What is glamour to them is not always glamour in my eyes, but that is a good thing. My father believed in communication, listening, authenticity, respect, innovation, natural products, and service. These things spell out the word Clarins.”
Christian Courtin-Clarins is even entertained by the fuss the girls seem to be causing in New York City. “ ‘Yourself Only Better’: That has always been this company’s motto,” he said. “But I have a new one.” He leaned down to look at his agneau with rosemary. “When it comes to food, the thing that really matters is the knife. You must have a good knife, not a serrated edge, the right knife, so that you can feel the sensuality of the meat.”
Is it possible I was in France?
The Prada party during Paris couture week is said to be a bit of a destination. Claire and Virginie arrived late and were having a great time amid the faux-Classical sculptures, complete with paste-on heads by the artist Francesco Vezzoli, who, at Prada’s behest, had turned the Conseil Économique, Social et Environnemental on the Place d’Iéna into a 24-hour pop-up museum.
Even among the models and fashionistas, the girls looked Amazonian. They were last seen disappearing onto the dance floor trailing choice pieces of clothing by Alexander Wang and Rodarte, getting down with Vogue’s international editor-at-large, Hamish Bowles. Kate Moss had D.J.-ed for a while, but the girls were happy when the cameras stopped popping and they got to dance next to the speakers to some epic techno tune.
To Claire and Virginie, as with their cousins, there are no fashion mistakes: There are only mistakes in attitude. “It’s cool to have a 24-hour museum, good for Prada,” said Claire. And Virginie offered, smiling on the heaving dance floor, that good times make sense of hard work, just as fashion makes sense of beauty. Virginie’s bag was full of Clarins products, next to a copy of a book she was reading called Une Bonne Raison de Se Tuer, or A Good Reason to Kill Yourself, by Philippe Besson. “My dream is to have a huge library,” she said. “I love Mario Vargas Llosa. Gabriel García Márquez. I can cry at these books. When Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize, I was so happy. Almost as happy as I will be back in New York. Such fun. Such fun you wouldn’t believe it.”