Ala chats with the beauty entrepreneur and matriarch on the joys (and challenges) of working with family.
Beyond the Kaftain with
"I’ve always admired my friend Sylvie Chantecaille. Not only is she the founder of a global beauty brand, but she’s a conservationist, adventure enthusiast, she has incredible taste and she works with not one, but four members of her family! In celebration of Mother’s Day, I sat down with Sylvie and chatted about family, travel and how she defines beauty today." - Ala
Ala: Can you tell us about the history of the Chantecaille brand? Was it founded as a family brand or did you start it alone and your family later came in?
Sylvie: I started it alone but it got more populated as it went on. After 18 years at Prescriptives and Estee Lauder, I figured I’d start a nice little french fragrance company and of course one year later, Neiman Marcus came calling and they wanted a make-up line. I was headed to Hong Kong to meet with the retailer Joyce. On the way back I stopped in Japan and looked into the research they were doing and I found this idea for a foundation. I went to the lab and brought back samples. I stopped in Dallas and showed the Neiman Marcus team. They were very interested and said, “Let’s do it.” They put money behind it and gave me 40 of their locations and that’s how Chantecaille was born.
A few years in, my daughter Olivia was coming back from modeling in Europe. I told her to come work with me. So we started working on colors together. Then my other daughter Alexandra joined me. At first she did not want to work with me! Then my younger son came home from California and wanted to spend more time with the family. So we said, what can we do with you? He’s such an artist. He has an amazing eye. So he learned how to do video and now he shoots for us. That’s the fun of working with family, to see them grow into incredible adults.
Ala: I find that my daughter Sunny and I finish each other’s sentences. It’s so seamless. Have you found any difficulties in working with family? We’re sort of new to it. It’s untested territory for us and always an experiment. Do you have any advice to share?
Sylvie: I think the really important thing, once you start building a bigger team and there’s other people working, is to not treat your kids differently. It’s hard but to do it’s imperative to keep everyone on the same level. You have to be able to work with them as people, not as your children. Of course that’s difficult for a mother. You don’t want them to be upset. You worry about them. But you have to look at them as adults who are working.
Ala: It’s a challenge. When you’re a mother, you want to treat them like your children but you know you can’t. That can be hard.
Sylvie: You can’t help them grow if you don’t. It makes them better people and makes them stronger.
Ala: What’s your favorite aspect of working with your children?
Sylvie: I feel so lucky that I get to see them. Otherwise, when? Dinner? A charity event? Do you live with them and watch them grow as humans? Not so much anymore! So it’s an incredible privilege.
Ala: It takes a special mother to work with three children.
Sylvie: I like tribes.
Ala: You’re like a lioness with your tribe!
Sylvie: I was an only child. I was desperate to have a tribe. Life is so boring as an only child. You want a tribe. When you work at a company and you realize people are not so kind. To have your tribe with you is so much better.
Ala: I wish I had more of my tribe involved, but one is better than none.
Sylvie: The great thing is that little by little we travel together and do incredible things. We do Africa with them. Last Christmas we took everyone to Kenya for three weeks. We do a lot of trips. One memorable one was when we went climbing in Rwanda with silverbacks. It was extraordinary.
Ala: What’s your next trip?
Sylvie: Right now we’re supposed to be in India but it’s too difficult. We wanted to do a wonderful trip with tigers and leopards. Our friend leads a conservation program with leopards, but we’re unable to go. We have another friend who is commissioning an artist to recreate 100 lifesize elephants in London. So we’re all going into Regent’s Park in St. James. We’re going for two weeks and from there we’re going to Kenya. We have many friends in Kenya, so we go to a few places. We’re doing a planting project with our friend Angela Sheldrick. She has created some great lodges. So we’ll spend time with her, then go see lion guardians in Maasai.
Ala: I’ve always wanted to do that trip with the kids. I haven’t been back to Africa since my 20’s.
Sylvie: You must bring them.
Ala: How has your vision of beauty changed as you’ve gotten older?
Sylvie: I’ve always loved natural things. I have German blood, and we like natural. I also love science and nature, products that are natural and healthy for you. Makeup changes as you get older. Obviously you wear less and less.
Ala: Yes, you don’t want to see an older woman with that much makeup. It makes her look older.
Sylvie: By a certain age, it’s good skin you’re hoping for, and with your eyes open and alive! It’s amazing how much the eyes shrink as you get older. It’s embarrassingly true. My eyes are half the size they used to be!
Ala: There are tricks, I’m sure. I’ll have to look them up! What do you think about women coming out of Covid-19? I guess there’s the need to pull it all back together now?
Sylvie: I think people are getting it together. I feel that women have been doing all of these Zooms and video conferences, and now they are concerned about how they look on the screen. In our work, we have a lot of sales people who work with customers on the phone or computer because people are not going into stores. They’ve learned a lot about themselves during Covid with one-on-one lessons. It’s amazing how we’ve managed to make masks look good. All you need is great cheekbones and a beautiful eye! What a world we’re living in, right?