While drinking Pu’er tea has long been believed to have traditional medicinal properties in China, new LVMH-owned Sino-French eco beauty brand Cha Ling is out to convince consumers that a rare forest-grown variety of the plant has major skincare benefits as well.
Launched in January this year in Paris, the label was developed by Guerlain CEO Laurent Boillot in secrecy over the past three years after he became inspired to create it while working with environmental activists in Yunnan’s lush Xishuangbanna prefecture. With a Chinese name that means the “spirit of tea,” the new label offers a range of 40 skin, body, and face care items infused with top-grade pu’er tea grown in the forests of Xishuangbanna.
The brand combines a focus on the antioxidant and anti-aging properties of the tea with an emphasis on forest preservation in Yunnan, where natural forest coverage fell to less than 50 percent by 2003 as environmental protection took a backseat to business interests such as the rubber industry. Boillot says the new venture is aimed at both profit and ecology, stating, “everything we do is not only about making the business, but also is to give back to nature.”
His path to the brand’s creation began seven years ago, when he visited Yunnan for the first time to research orchid varieties for Guerlain products. While in Xishuangbanna, he met a German biologist and conservationist named Josef Margraf, who was based in the area working on forest conservation through the organization he founded with his wife, the Tianzi Biodiversity Research & Development Centre.
After his first trip, Boillot returned several times to visit Margraf and his wife, Minguo Li-Margraf, where he learned more about their project to revive the production of forest tea. Their conservation efforts earned the couple China’s “Green Hero” award in 2007, but in 2010, Josef suddenly passed away. Li-Margraf carried on with their work, and later received the Charming China Award in 2010 and Forest China Chinese Ecological Hero award in 2014 for her efforts.
As Boillot continued to return to Yunnan, he was inspired to start Cha Ling and worked with Li-Margraf to develop the sourcing for the brand, which was aimed at supporting her efforts to preserve forest production. Receiving research and development support from Guerlain, the brand searched for the purest tea trees by meeting with farmers who maintain the Camellia sinensis trees that produce pu’er tea leaves. These farmers hail mainly from the Bulang ethnic minority group, and have developed an intricate system of growing, harvesting, and fermenting the tea leaves without damaging the trees.
Cha Ling signed 10-year contracts with two different Bulang farmers harvesting approximately 500-year-old old tea trees, stipulating that no pesticides can be used. Their harvesting sites, called Ganggang and Jingmai, were selected for their high altitude, low sun exposure, soil quality, biodiversity, and low density of tea trees, which are spaced at least three meters apart.
In addition to harvesting the pu’er tea for cosmetics, the brand is also sponsoring a tea garden project based on Margraf’s reforestation plans. The brand is helping to plant tea trees and other plants to “copy the original ecosystem, which has now been devastated,” says Boillot. “Some of the trees are young tea trees, but they are not used for production,” he notes. “It’s a very long-term project.”
With products including pu’er-infused cleansing powder, serum, massage cream, masks, and a “steam tablet” for purifying pores, the brand draws on claims made in traditional Chinese medicine as well as scientific studies about antioxidants found in tea. Boillot argues that the antioxidant properties long studied by scientists are not only beneficial to health from tea consumption, but also good for skin when used on the face, while he adds that pu’er’s unique fermentation process has anti-aging effects.
Cha Ling is billing itself as a holistic lifestyle brand inspired by Chinese culture, offering a wide variety of products including perfume, forest-grown pu’er tea for drinking, Yixing clay teapots, ceramics produced in Jingdezhen, and candles. “It’s not just a cosmetic line,” says Boillot. It also invokes traditional Chinese medicine with its massage technique using acupuncture points on the face, as well as its own meditation program.
Cha Ling is the latest Chinese brand to be backed by a major European luxury company, following in the footsteps of Hermès’ fashion and lifestyle label Shang Xia and Kering’s jewelry brand Qeelin. The brand is also LVMH’s latest foray into Chinese-branded beauty. In 2013, the company’s Asian private equity fund L Capital Asia invested in Chinese cosmetics brand Marubi.
Like Hermès-backed Shang Xia, the brand is emphasizing its combination of Chinese and French heritage. While the ingredients will be sourced in China, the products will be produced in Guerlain’s lab in France as Guerlain functions as an “incubator” for the label.
Cha Ling also chose Paris for its first retail location, opening up a corner at Le Bon Marché in January, and is planning on a standalone Paris shop. Its China expansion followed close behind with a Hong Kong boutique opening on January 27. Boillot says the goal is to make the brand appeal to an international clientele, stating that “it’s not just for Chinese consumers.” According to him, the focus is currently on Paris and Hong Kong at the moment. “I’m not looking at where are the Chinese buying in France; I’m just trying to prove to ourselves that it can work in France and can work in Hong Kong.” He plans on eventual expansion into mainland China, stating, “where we want to start distribution is either in department stores with good corners, or in boutiques, or in e-commerce.”
When the brand does enter mainland China, it will emphasize not only its skincare products, but also its eco-friendly image, says Boillot. Noting a growing awareness of China’s massive problems with pollution and environmental degradation, he says that he has witnessed Chinese consumers become increasingly environmentally conscious over his visits. “Four years ago, the idea was already there,” he says of environmental awareness in China, adding that he is confident that Chinese consumers will be interested in both the products and the brand’s environmentally friendly identity.