Two weeks ago, a Chinese beauty blogger named Hao Yu announced on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, that he was suing beauty giant Estée Lauder.
The beauty blogger is accusing the company of false advertising, and his lawsuit pertains to La Mer, the luxury skin care line owned by Estée Lauder that makes one of the most coveted and expensive moisturizers in the beauty industry: Crème de la Mer. To the faithful, this product is basically the Holy Grail of creams. It sells at $325 for 2 ounces at high-end department stores, including Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue, and is touted as a skin care essential by a huge range of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Martha Stewart, and Kevin Hart.
But Yu argues, according to the South China Morning Post, that language on La Mer’s Chinese website is misleading customers into believing Crème de la Mer can heal scars from burns.
The lawsuit is just one more chapter in the much-hyped story of La Mer. The brand has a mysterious, nearly mythical presence in the beauty world, and it is not without controversy. For decades, customers have lamented the line’s inaccessible price tag and questioned whether the ingredients in its products are really as lavish as it claims.
How La Mer got its fairy tale reputation
Within the lucrative world of beauty, arguably no company has obtained such legendary status as La Mer, and that’s partly because of its backstory.
Per the tale on the brand website, the formulas for La Mer products, including Crème de la Mer, were developed by Dr. Max Huber, a “gifted scientist” and physicist. Huber is said to have suffered chemical burns during a lab accident. (The brand doesn’t give a timeline, but other accounts of the story say the accident happened in the 1950s.) According to the tale, he searched for something to heal his burns and was “convinced the regenerative properties of the sea might hold the key to improving the look of his skin.”
Huber decided to experiment with resources found in “the pristine waters of a nutrient-rich kelp forest in the Pacific” (fancy PR talk for using seaweed he found near his home in California). The La Mer site says Huber “experimented with a slow-craft fermentation process, combining Pacific sea kelp with vitamins and other natural ingredients.” He supposedly spent 12 years working on his “crème,” going through 6,000 trials, and ultimately found that when he exposed his science experiment to “light and sound waves,” it worked better.
The end result was a recipe Huber called a “Miracle Broth” — a term that has been trademarked by Estée Lauder. Huber, who one society figure said had the “skin of a 12-year-old” after making his discovery, used this recipe to make creams he sold under the brand name La Mer, which literally means “the sea” in French.
The business grew by word of mouth — Huber attended “elite dinner parties in the West Village” in the late ’80s with fashion folk like designer Ralph Rucci, according to Elle, and gained a following. La Mer creams also sold by mail order catalogues, and at small, high-end department stores like Henri Bendel.
Huber died in 1991, and Estée Lauder acquired La Mer in 1995. His original “Miracle Broth” recipe is now in most La Mer products, including, of course, Crème de la Mer. The company makes products other than moisturizer, like serums and makeup, but the Crème de la Mer moisturizer has brought it the most fame.
Today, the brand says that its sea kelp is “placed on ice and rushed to the La Mer labs to help keep its nutrients optimized.” La Mer products are also subjected to a “carefully selected” soundtrack of music during their three-month fermentation process, as a research and development scientist at Estée Lauder told the Cut last year.
Once La Mer was acquired by Estée Lauder, the beauty giant marketed the line to the masses as a luxury brand. (That its name is French also has a certain type of appeal.) Estée Lauder helped get the moisturizer in front of A-listers, so for decades, Crème de la Mer has been a Hollywood skin care staple.
In the early aughts, it was a Jennifer Lopez beauty secret, and these days it’s Chrissy Teigen’s stretch mark cream and Kate Moss’s night cream. The brand plays a prominent role in Kim Kardashian West’s $4,500 beauty routine, and Scott Disick has said his morning ritual includes rubbing in the cream.
La Mer is also considered a beauty status symbol, as portrayed by the brand’s army of “high style” influencers. Even though a small percentage of beauty consumers can actually afford to spend $175 on an ounce of cream, influencer marketing platform Traackr has determined that La Mer is the beauty brand that gains the most engagement from its followers on social media.
It’s unclear if La Mer pays celebrities or influencers to use or mention the brand, but it’s safe to say at least some of them receive these or other products for free, which all feed into La Mer’s constant visibility as the ultimate beauty grail. This year, Estée Lauder announced La Mer is now making its parent company more than $1 billion in sales.
Shoppers both love and hate the pricey moisturizer
To everyday people who don’t get the creams for free, though, or aren’t rich and famous, La Mer products can be polarizing; some people swear they’re worth the exorbitant cost, while many others say the line is no more than a stunt.
Comb through La Mer products on any website, and you will find hundreds of thousands of gushy reviews. Over at Nordstrom, there are 2,274 reviews, including sentiments like “My skin looks and feels great and I constantly get compliments on my lack of wrinkles at 63!” and “I have tried moisturizers from other high-end brands as well as from the dermatologist office and nothing works as well as Creme De La Mer,” and also “the hype is yes, real.” Bloggers have called La Mer “worth every penny” and praised its ability “to transform the appearance of the skin.”
There are also plenty shoppers who say otherwise, insisting the price tag isn’t justifiable and that there are plenty of equally good dupes. Over at Makeup Alley, a community of beauty obsessives, reviewers said La Mer’s products invite “hilarious theatrics” and noted that shoppers might “find Disney more gratifying than this creme.” On the popular Reddit community SkincareAddiction, users have accused the cream of being so thick it “suffocates skin and clogs pores,” and the reaction of one shopper at Sephora, which started stocking La Mer in 2017, was “no, no, no, and no.”
Discussion of the company is tangled up in a web of conspiracy theories — that Huber never existed, that his scientific experiment story was all made up by Estée Lauder, that he worked for NASA, that he didn’t work for NASA, that La Mer moisturizer is really just a giant tub of seaweed mixed with Nivea cream that fermented for four months.
Plenty of bloggers and skin care experts have spoken up about how La Mer’s ingredients are far more common than the company claims and don’t match up to the product’s price tag. One of the main ingredients in Crème de la Mer, for example, is mineral oil, which can be bought by the gallon on Amazon for $20 or from Johnson & Johnson at 25 cents an ounce. Another one is petrolatum, which is probably best known for the popular, branded drug store goo, Vaseline.
In 2010, the Daily Mail even hired a cosmetic chemist to study Crème de la Mer, and he ascertained that despite its hefty price tag, its ingredients cost about $20.
The Chinese lawsuit against La Mer
La Mer claims its products are “a miraculous feat of science and serendipity,” and it characterizes Crème de la Mer as a “miraculous golden elixir” that is “cell-renewing.”
Beauty brands make all sorts of claims like these. But Hao Yu, the Chinese blogger who’s suing La Mer, takes issue with how the company is marketing to Chinese customers specifically. In his lawsuit, Yu claims La Mer’s Chinese website says its cream “restored Huber’s physical appearance.” When he searched La Mer’s American and Japanese websites, though, La Mer made no such claims. (The American website currently says the cream “helped restore [Dr. Huber’s] complexion to a look of such radiant health.”)
“Yin-yang website, fake ads, LA MER, how long are you going to lie to Chinese consumers?” Yu wrote on Weibo.
Yu’s post quickly went viral, receiving more than 34,000 comments, with almost 100,000 shares. A Weibo hashtag about La Mer trying to “deceive Chinese consumers” was trending last week, Chinese luxury business site Jing Daily reported, and Yu’s post made became a trending topic on Weibo, where it was viewed more than 79 million times.
In a statement, La Mer told Vox: “We stand behind our products, and will take action to vigorously defend our brand against these allegations. For decades, consumers around the world have been devoted to La Mer because of their confidence in its efficacy and quality.”
La Mer claiming that its cream is able to “restore” skin to what it looked like before it was burned clearly hit a nerve for Yu. He told his 1.1 million Weibo followers that he spent 1,450 yuan (about $211) on Crème de la Mer and used it on scars from burns, but did not see any improvement. He said he also found other Chinese customers who’d bought the cream for healing his scars, and that they too felt duped.
But Yu’s lawsuit isn’t just about one blogger’s dismay with a beauty brand, though. It speaks to a major consumer demographic — Chinese shoppers — and how they’re often pandered to.
The Chinese skin care industry is a $22 billion market, and is a direct reflection of the spending power of China’s rising middle class. According to McKinsey, there will be more millionaires in China than any other country by the end of this year, and by 2021, China will have the world’s wealthiest households.
These shoppers are “breathing new life into the luxury market,” Reuters reports, and they have an affinity for luxury brands. While wealthy Chinese customers buy into the luxury brands of Italy and France, American brands like Michael Kors, Tiffany & Co., Coach, and Estée Lauder have become increasingly popular.
Companies are well aware of the sales opportunity in China and have made major pushes for its shoppers, opening stores in the country’s major cities stores and participating in national shopping holidays like Singles Day.
Estée Lauder, specifically, has made a huge push for the Chinese market over the past year, which has resulted in a 50 percent increase in Chinese sales. While it’s unclear if La Mer’s marketing language was meant to intentionally deceive shoppers, Yu has pointed out an overall thirst in the luxury market for the Chinese shopper’s wallet. (La Mer told Vox it was “aware of Mr. Hao Yu’s statement that he has sued La Mer and [does] not comment on potential or pending litigation.”)
“No matter how much money Chinese consumers have, big global brands will not treat Chinese consumers as VIPs,” Yu wrote in an angry blog post, according to the Southern China Morning Post. “In their eyes, we are still gullible sheep waiting to be killed.”
Still, even with the lawsuit, La Mer will likely continue to reign as a premium skin care brand. The constant discussion about the pros, the cons, and the conspiracy theories help fan the flames of mystique, as does the premium price tag. The jar is extra heavy, the scent is strong, and there’s a delicate little spoon that’s supposed to be used to scoop out the moisturizer.
The brand calls the application of the cream “the ritual,” and gives specific instructions; you must rub it between your hands before applying it to your face “to activate the renewing power.” Even the thickness of the cream is, well, rich.
The moisturizer may or may not be worth it, and the claims may or may not be genuine — in the US, or in China — but the reputation, visibility, and overall mystery of the beauty brand continues to live on, and is what keeps (some) shoppers coming back for one dollop after another.
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