I’m always fascinated to talk to fellow entrepreneurs. I first stumbled across Lebon in Paris, in the new Printemps beauty store – and realised it was one of those ‘duh-why-didn’t-someone-think-of-it-before’ products. Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to talk to the creators of the first toothpaste brand that looks as good as it smells, smells as good as it tastes. (And happens to be organic, with it. Which definitely matters to those of us who care about what we put in our mouths.)
So no wonder this up-and-coming brand – created near perfumery’s capital of Grasse, working with one of that town’s leading fragrance houses – is revolutionising the toothpaste market, stocked in 30 countries around the world and in spiffy department stores including Joyce in Hong Kong and Le Printemps in Paris (and of course, right here on VH), just five years after launch.
Lebon turns out to be the ‘baby’ of former art historian and photographer Stephanie Palacci and her cosmetic scientist husband Richard. In fact, they were on a sojourn in Costa Rica, where the couple spent chunks of time with their two children, when the idea came to her. ‘It’s a country where smells are so powerful,’ Stephanie explained to me. ‘It was rainy season, and there were so many scents in the air – the grass, the forest, the jungle, the flowers, all the smells that you have after a tropical downpour. And it clicked for me: I wanted to have that experience when I brushed my teeth. I wanted to bring the beach, the forest, a sunlit afternoon, the joy of travel right into the bathroom for people.’
Both from entrepreneurial families, the couple had previously thought about creating a skincare brand together. ‘But everything has already been done, and we couldn’t imagine bringing something that was better to the market than was already in existence.’ Oral care, however, offered a gap in the market much, much wider than the one in Lara Stone’s smile. Sure, there was a new generation of luxury whitening toothpastes on the market. Yes, natural food stores now offered effective alternatives to the ultra-foaming mainstream brands who’ve dominated the toothpaste industry for forever. But a toothpaste that also whisked you to a desert island, a Côte d’Azur swimming pool or a beach in Rio, just as perfume can…? That had never been done. ‘When I told him my concept, Richard said: “I could do that.”’
At that time, when not ensconced in the jungles of Costa Rica, the couple were based in the South of France, where Richard worked teaching cosmetic science. Tentatively, they approached one of most prestigious and historic perfume houses, founded in the 18th Century in nearby Grasse, which works with haute couture fragrance names and other leading international perfume brands. (Their identity remains a guarded secret, Stephanie explains – and I’ll let her off for being coy; when big brands get a whiff of start-ups’ success, there’s often an attempt to copy what they’re doing, which can crush a small brand with limited resources.)
Not surprisingly, the fragrance house became as excited by the project as the couple themselves. More surprisingly, Stephanie didn’t use her library of travel photographs as part of the briefing process. Instead, she explains, ‘we talked a lot about my memories of travel and the scent that places conjure up for me.’ It was a given that every fragrance for the range should have mint somewhere in its flavour/fragrance formula. ‘Above everything else, what you want a toothpaste to deliver is a sensation of freshness in the mouth – and nothing does that like mint,’ Stephanie acknowledges. But the complex aromas were built from there.
Tropical Crush, for instance, gives us mint in the background, playing up notes of luscious pineapple– conjuring up memories for Stephanie of drinking cocktails on Brazilian beaches – alongside anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial rooibos red tea. My own favourite, Sweet Extravagance – described by Lebon as ‘haute couture and sexy’ – offers very detectable notes of orange blossom and rose, with just a whisper of cool mintiness; a very different sensory experience, for sure, to the usual tooth-brushing drudgery. And you can turn the page for the globe-trotting stories behind the rest of the collection.
The other ‘given’, for the couple, was that their toothpaste should be organic. ‘I don’t want to have to compromise between my health – or that of my family – and a good, pleasurable moment, brushing my teeth,’ says this mother of two teenagers. The 97% natural formulas avoid sulfates, PEGs, artificial sweeteners, colourings and flavourings (the flavours, which all come from Grasse, are 100% natural, using the best press of essential oils). More recently, Lebon added whitening options to their range, innovatively using papain extract (from papaya) for its natural brightening enzyme effect. ‘They won’t make your teeth unnaturally super-white,’ she says, ‘but they will stop staining from tea or wine.’ The chosen sweetener, meanwhile, is the natural, calorie-free plant Stevia rebaudiana.
For logistical reasons, meanwhile, although the toothpastes – and now mouthwash – are all manufactured in France, the Palaccis relocated to the countryside outside Brussels. ‘From the office I can see cows and lambs,’ smiles Stephanie. ‘But I’m 20 minutes from the Eurostar or from flights to many different destinations. Brussels is a hub, whereas Provence just isn’t. And besides,’ she adds, ‘with a growing business and a family that was growing up, I needed the support system of being near my family.’
For world-class shoppers and brand aficionados, meanwhile, there are two last factors which make us happy to trade up from our usual toothpaste choices to Lebon – despite the fairly hefty price tag. (Though in my experience, a tube of Lebon lasts three to four months. As a fragrance-lover, I definitely spend way longer brushing my teeth now my toothpaste makes me close my eyes and think of St. Tropez or Costa Rica than I did before. And what price a great smile, eh?)
Lebon toothpastes also look completely fantastic – almost certainly, the first toothpastes on the planet which will have you re-arranging your bathroom shelf, to show off your toothpaste. They couldn’t do a better job of catching the customer’s eye from across a store. But in common with many start-ups, Lebon didn’t realise quite how clever they were being there, either. ‘It’s the icing on the cake,’ Stephanie maintains.‘It just reflected our aesthetic and our taste. People often talk about how cool the packaging is, now – but we haven’t been to business school and we certainly never used a focus group. We simply did what felt and looked right, to us.’
But what customers will also notice about Lebon is that they’ve taken inspiration from the fragrance industry when naming each toothpaste. ‘You don’t buy a perfume that is just called “Rose”, do you?,’ notes Stephanie. So Lebon offer us Cap Ferrat Mood, Back to Pamplelonne, Fearless Freedom… I wanted to recreate the experience I had when I put on my Hermès Un Jardin en Mediterrannée,’ explains Stephanie. ‘The name already gets my brain working in a particular way, I know what to expect… It takes me somewhere, even before I’ve sprayed my fragrance, and I wanted Lebon to offer an experience like that.’
We’re all used to our fragrance transporting us to far-flung places, as we dab and spritz. How exciting for perfume-lovers that the formerly mundane task of brushing our teeth can has been pimped into a magic carpet ride, too. Just don’t blame Stephanie Palacci if there’s a queue for your bathroom, from here on in.
I asked Stephanie to share her other travel inspirations for the Lebon range…
Cap Ferrat Mood ‘This is the freshest one. Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat is a peninsula in the South of France; there are a lot of pine forests where people walk and jog. The mixture of different mints conjures up the freshness of that, but with a touch of vanilla for sweetness. A great kick-start to the day.’
Villa Noacarlina ‘A combination of my children’s names, Charline (now 16) and Noe (13). We were staying in Costa Rica and we had cinnamon candles burning in the villa, so we recreated that in this toothpaste.’
Une Piscine à Antibes ‘Conjuring up the famous pool at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc hotel in Antibes, looking out over the blue Mediterranean, where we love to swim.’
Sweet Extravagance ‘A reminder of a visit to Hollywood; there’s so much glitter there, and this combination of rose and orange blossom seems very extravagant, yet also has a delicate side.’
Le White ‘With antioxidant sweet mint, from Morocco, to evoke Moroccan tea.’
Fearless Freedom ‘This is more a mood than a place, from one of Richard’s ideas – designed to make you feel strong and courageous, with its powerful blackcurrant note.’
Back to Pamplelonne ‘Pure sunshine. When we visit Le Pamplelonne beach, we always have mango salad: little slivers of mango, layered with mint leaves. For me, this instantly brings back walking along sandy Mediterranean beaches.’
Shop the full range of Lebon toothpastes, here.