Caudalie’s Mathilde Thomas Wants to Clean Up the Beauty Industry

In the intensely competitive beauty world, Mathilde Thomas has become an international success story. The co-founder of Caudalie built her French natural-beauty brand steadily over three decades, watching as the innovations she championed gradually became industry standards.

Famously, the light-bulb moment was pure happenstance. As a young woman, her first passion was fragrance, and, encouraged by her father to follow her nose, she studied business before heading to Grasse, the global centre of the perfume industry, to begin her career. But a chance meeting while she was touring her parents’ new vineyard in the early 1990s changed everything.

There she met Joseph Vercauteren, a professor of pharmacy who was researching polyphenols, valuable antioxidants he had discovered in the waste products from winemaking. Thomas understood immediately. In 1995, she and her husband, Bertrand Thomas, launched Caudalie, making the vineyard-produced antioxidant the star ingredient—as it remains almost three decades on.

Her goal from the start was to use the most natural ingredients possible—not established practice in the 1990s. A white paper she published in the French press in 2006—a manifesto praising ingredients of natural origin and abjuring synthetics—bewildered the industry. Thomas was undeterred. “I remember doing a press conference in 2007 in New York City, talking about the fact that I removed parabens, phenoxyethanol, sulphates, mineral oil, animal ingredients from all my formulas, and the journalists couldn’t care less,” she says. “We were way too early.”

The turning point was in 2018, when Sephora introduced its clean-beauty program, turning to Thomas for advice. Thomas recounts the conversation. “They said, ‘You are the cleanest of the clean brands. So what are your rules?’” Sephora did, she notes, devise its own parameters of clean beauty, “but they first asked me.”

From there, what was a niche indie label is now ranked 81 in the WWD Beauty Inc. top 100 beauty manufacturers in the world for sales. “It helped the stars align,” Thomas admits. “Once you reach the top 10 at Sephora, your life changes.”

Alongside its natural formulations, Caudalie is known for its essential Frenchness. Thomas interprets that as Caudalie’s high standards for ingredients and products. “That matters to me when I see and compare my brand to American brands. I know every single ingredient in my formula. I make sure that there are 73 ingredients that will never be in my formula,” she says. Although she has learned from brands in the U.S., which she calls “the king of marketing,” she says that their formulas “do shortcuts that I would never do. For me, it matters more what I have in my formula than the way that I present it.”

Upcycling may be de rigueur these days, but it’s the foundation of Caudalie. Along with those original extracts from grape seeds, the company makes use of other winemaking by-products: grape water for hydration and viniferine (grapevine sap extract) for brightening. In 2012, the company joined Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s 1% for the Planet organization. “I remember we were super ashamed to say that in front of the board—say, okay, we’re going to give 1 per cent of our profits to plant trees,” Thomas says. “Now everybody’s joining us.”

Plastic pollution has been a top concern since 2015, when, following a move to Hong Kong to grow Caudalie’s presence in Asia, she saw the problem first-hand. She began to overhaul the product packaging and in 2021 initiated the 100% Plastic Collect program: the brand collects waste plastic (the same quantity as used in production) from the beaches, islands, and coastal areas of Thailand to be repurposed into new plastic products, bricks, or pavement.

Thomas says the big focus for her in the coming years is to improve packaging even further and encourage others to do the same. “My kids are challenging me all the time every day on the packaging,” she says. “I think it’s the next chapter.”

The products that have her excited are her new launches, in particular the reformulated Resveratrol-Lift Instant Firming Serum, which the brand says is three times more effective than retinol for boosting collagen, without the irritation. That’s thanks to a vegan ingredient Caudalie describes as bioidentical to human collagen. “It’s actually mRNA technology where we put plasmid, which is a liquid with human collagen, on the plant,” Thomas says. “And the plant starts to work as a factory to produce a fragment of human collagen that is bioavailable.” After a few weeks, Caudalie harvests the curled leaves for use in the formula.

With all this work, Thomas seems remarkably relaxed. How does she switch off? She’s now living back in Paris, but “I don’t relax in Paris,” she says. “Going to the vineyard is nice, but it’s work. I relax at the mountain. I love to go skiing at the mountain. That’s what I like the best.”

Photos courtesy of Caudalie. Read more from our Autumn 2023 issue.

Post Date:

November 6, 2023