Clémence von Mueffling shows why French women don’t lose their looks.
Clémence von Mueffling learnt how to be soignée from her mother and grandmother, both Vogue beauty editors.
Frenchwomen, as we all know, live by the tenets of liberté, fraternité and imbuing their Anglo-Saxon sisters with a horrible sense of infériorité. A recent onslaught of Les Françaises Do It Better books has repeatedly reported that they’re better lovers than us, have less bratty children and stay eternally skinny, despite their intravenous consumption of brie and baguettes.
Now the marvellously named Clémence von Mueffling is telling us something we have long known: Frenchwomen are also more gorgeous than us, with rigorous beauty benchmarks adhered to from childhood.
“My grandmother used to say to me and my sister from when we were about 16, ‘Rendez-vous at dinner with some mascara,’ ” von Mueffling recalls. “The idea of us appearing at a family Sunday dinner without some make-up was inconceivable.”
Even by the standards of her soignée compatriots, von Mueffling’s glamour pedigree is unimpeachable. The exacting grandmother in question is Régine Debrise, a former cover girl for photographers such as Irving Penn, who became a beauty editor at Vogue. Debrise’s equally dazzling daughter, Lorraine Bolloré, occupied the same job, twice winning the Prix Jasmine for the best fragrance journalism.
“I remember my mother telling me never to leave the house without perfume and, when I was 13, teaching me how to clean my face impeccably before I went to bed,” von Mueffling says. “That same summer she sent me to camp in the US to improve my English and packed for me a bottle of Lierac stretch-mark cream, a bottle of Estée by Estée Lauder perfume and Clarins Eau Dynamisante body lotion. They were beautiful, but they all smelt very strong and the other girls all made fun of me, so I quickly put everything back in my suitcase and left it there until I returned home.
“Other times she’d come home from the Vogue offices after interviewing a hair specialist and say, ‘Now, girls, we are going to do the cold-water-vinegar rinse.’ She’d put the two mixed together in the fridge for a couple of hours, then pour it over our hair. We hated it, it was so cold, but it did make our hair shiny.”
With such indoctrination, von Mueffling was destined to become a beauty heavyweight in her own right, working variously after graduation for Dior in Paris, Clarins in its London offices, and the fashion and fragrance giant Puig in Barcelona, before moving to New York. There, in the way of gorgeous well-connected Parisiennes, she married a super-rich hedge funder and had twins, a girl and a boy who are now eight. Four years ago she launched a website, Beauty and Wellbeing, a sort of un-potty version of Goop, packed with tips about looking gorgeous but natural.
Now von Mueffling, 39, is publishing Ageless Beauty: The Secrets to French Elegance, a compendium of advice for every age from her forebears, not to mention dozens of French experts in everything from medical-standard pedicures (Bastien Gonzalez, podologue to Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow, but who — if you can’t afford his $1,500 sessions — recommends using an old electric toothbrush to scrub your feet) to cellulite busting (the “remodelage” queen is Martine de Richeville, who has regular London-based clinics).
There are also exhaustive lists of von Mueffling’s favourite beauty products for every age, and the most detailed expositions I’ve come across since Jackie magazine’s heyday into such burning issues as how to clean your face — something it turns out I’ve been doing wrong my entire life by a) shunning the double-cleansing method she advocates and b) using the cheapest cotton wool available. “Ah, non, one of the things I splurge on is actually a good quality cotton pad,” von Mueffling informs me gently.
Sitting in a sunny London hotel courtyard, von Mueffling is in tight leggings, heels and a puff-sleeved blouse that would make me look like a menopausal escapee from a historical re-enactment society, but that on her shrieks understated European glamour. She’s charmingly soft-spoken and subtley, though perfectly, made-up — the hallmark of French style.
“For Frenchwomen it is very important to have the natural look,” she says. “In private they work hard, but they don’t share their secrets; they’re, like, ‘I was born this way and I’m not doing anything.’ ”
In contrast, arriving in Manhattan 12 years ago, von Mueffling was amazed to discover that female New Yorkers would happily divulge the name of their favourite dermatologist or colourist. “American women are great friends; sometimes you don’t even need to ask them for the best addresses, they’ll just tell you, ‘I’m seeing this amazing facialist, you must go!’ It was that openness that inspired the book.”
Yet New Yorkers, von Mueffling says, are also prone to taking their beauty regimens much more seriously than the French, with rigorous dieting, exercising and total sun avoidance.
“Frenchwomen know it is fine to drink a glass of red wine from time to time, or enjoy a little bit of good quality dark chocolate if they don’t eat processed food,” she says. “And many still love to sunbathe — the vitamin D is also good for you, so if you love the sun, then maybe just wait until 5pm until you go in it.”
And what about cigarettes, which — as one French actress once told me — are a must during pregnancy, because they guarantee small babies, hence preserving the pelvic floor and the happiness of your marriage. “No! Smoking is never good and too many French people still smoke too much.”
Does von Mueffling see any difference between French and British beauty philosophies? “I think that they are very similar,” she says, but does not look entirely convinced. “There is this mother-to-daughter culture, with mothers telling their daughters at a very young age what they must do and what is right for their skin.”
I’m not so sure — my recollection of being an Eighties teenager is that our entire beauty lore was garnered from the aforementioned Jackie, since our mothers and grandmothers used Pond’s Cold Cream and thought manicures a ludicrous frivolity. I recall when a friend and I were reduced to hysterics at our French flatmate’s announcement that she used one cream for her face and another for her body, which we considered the height of Gallic gullibility.
Since then we’ve undoubtedly become, depending on your point of view, vainer or more clued-up: today I own not only separate face and body creams, but also day, night and eye creams, CC and BB creams and dozens of serums.
However, I still can’t imagine many British grandmothers celebrating their granddaughter’s leaving school, as von Mueffling’s did, by taking them for a medical-style pedicure. There may have been an explosion of shops such as Space NK — while Marks & Spencer stocks several of the brands von Mueffling recommends, including Nuxe and Filorga — but we still have no equivalent of French pharmacies, which have shelves piled high with remedies for such mysterious continental afflictions as jambes lourdes (heavy legs).
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