Beneath the surface of Aesop’s skincare success

Pared-down, urbane skincare products have proved a runaway global success for Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis, who describes his innovative approach as a Muji-Hermès hybrid. Mark C O’Flaherty reports

Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis in the new store in Soho, London.
Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis in the new store in Soho, London. | Image: David Ellis

The area around Silver Place in London’s Soho has become a microcosm of Australia’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. The most luscious flat-white coffees in the city are served at Fernandez & Wells, there’s a neon dinosaur in the window of the Zero10 Gallery and The Society Club next door identifies itself via a chalkboard outside as a “bookshop serving tea and coffee, and toast with jam”. These are typical elements of Melbourne’s bohemian laneways. The arrival of a new store for Australian skincare brand Aesop, with untreated wood floors and row upon row of iconic brown apothecary bottles on enamel shelves, has completed the scene.

Aesop is one of the biggest international success stories in skincare. At the end of this year, the brand will celebrate its 25th anniversary and will have 50 stores across the world – the Soho opening being the first of 2012. Indeed, at the time of writing there was speculation that the company could soon be sold for as much as $150m. Quite a figure, considering founder Dennis Paphitis started out as a hairdresser with a salon, an idea and a few bottles of pure plant extracts, including rosemary and sage oil, in 1987. Inspired by an architectural firm in Florence called &A that had switched from working with buildings to experimental design with recycled paper, Paphitis honed Aesop’s imagery. The company is a creative pioneer in its own right, despite Paphitis’s determination to fly it only a fraction above the radar. Its influence on the look and ethos of other skincare brands has also crossed over into fashion retail, restaurants, print media and advertising-agency strategy.

Paphitis’s masterstroke is his very visible collaboration with architects and artists. Earlier this year, he worked with film-maker Lucy McRae, who describes herself as a “body architect”, on a serious and arresting short film that mixes offbeat beauty imagery with ice-cube bags and syringes, within the milieu of an operating theatre. It has some of the unsettling body-conscious essence of vintage David Cronenberg. “It’s inspired by physicist Hermann Ferdinand von Ludwig Helmholtz and his research on human perception,” says McRae. “As he said, ‘Everything is an event on the skin’.” McRae responds to the historical resonance of Aesop’s presentation. “It feels pre-digital,” she says. “Like a relic from the past that might always have been there.”

Much of the appeal of Aesop is the matter-of-fact nature of the products. Less is more. As Suzanne Santos, Aesop “product advocate”, says, “The very first products that Dennis formulated sold themselves because the formulation was startlingly new. There was no colour or artificial fragrance.” Similarly, today, no spiritual experience is promised with your morning toilette, no comparison with the results of surgical procedure, and there is no airbrushed advertising. As Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty, who introduced the brand to the US while at Henri Bendel, says, “It launched at a time when there was a general trend for anti-ageing products to make statements that weren’t backed by science.” Instead, Aesop’s focus is on preventative measures and transparent science, based upon free-radical “scavengers”. (Free radicals sit at the start of a chain reaction commonly believed to damage skin, and they are generated in abundance in polluted urban environments.) “It was one of the first brands to talk about antioxidants [in relation to protecting the skin from free-radical damage],” says Sarah Lerfel, owner and founder of Colette in Paris, the brand’s first French stockist. The Perfect Facial Hydrating Cream (£81) and B Triple C Balancing Gel (£77) are two of Aesop’s premium antioxidant products. And along with the science, the aromas are consistently seductive; the house style never veers from a natural fragrance axis of herbal and citrus, with touches of incense that evoke chapels, Byzantium and stately libraries.

Aesop’s products are not tested on animals and, with the exception of one shaving brush containing badger hair, are 100 per cent vegan. While an EU-wide ban on the marketing of any new beauty products tested on animals is imminent, the animal rights charity Peta’s online directory of the guilty still reads like an audit of many bathroom cabinets. As many big companies work their way off the list via sizeable investment in alternatives, it’s a remarkable fact that Aesop has never been on it. The brand also shuns the fashionable, but arguably meaningless, marketing drive of “100 per cent organic”. Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher, now owner of the body-product range Intelligent Nutrients, is just one industry insider who believes there are red herrings aplenty in products. “It is toxins that count, not whether something is labelled organic or natural,” he says.

Aesop Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum, £43. Aesop Perfect Facial Hydrating Cream, £81. Aesop Moroccan Neroli Shaving Serum, £39.
Aesop Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum, £43. Aesop Perfect Facial Hydrating Cream, £81. Aesop Moroccan Neroli Shaving Serum, £39.

The presence of parabens in skincare products has been a major consumer issue after ongoing studies pointed towards possible carcinogenic properties. Some highly credible companies that cheerlead for antioxidants have products that contain parabens. Aesop products, however, are paraben-free, while mixing synthetics with botanics for specific aims. A personal favourite is the Oil Free Facial Hydrating Serum with aloe-vera juice (£41), which has been formulated to moisturise oily skin and suits those living in particularly humid cities.

Laboratory dynamism aside, Aesop’s presentation has provoked a quiet but visible revolution within a sector of retail. “There are now more than 15 companies using those brown bottles,” says Aesop CEO Michael O’Keefe. And the brand’s creative collaborations are similarly influential. REN now produces provocative, adult-oriented short films, distributed via its website and social media, to support its products. Fragrance company Le Labo echoes the lo-fi Aesop style, with its typewriter and rubber-stamp fonts; and Heliocosm, a new natural cosmetics store in Paris, could, if you squint, be a branch of Aesop, with its sparse but bold wood-tunnel interior and dark refillable flacons.

The less-is-more approach – reductionist stores that bring the product to the fore; the simple, bookish sans-serif typography – fits snugly into the lifestyle zeitgeist between Camper shoes and hotels and the concrete stairwells of Dover Street Market. It’s a self-aware modernism. Like a navy, heavy-twill French workman’s jacket, or dinner within the whitewashed walls of St John, it speaks to an intellectual customer who feels they are above artifice and glossy hard sell. They want functionality, authenticity and restrained luxury. “Aesop is part of a small movement best described as the Muji-Hermès mix,” says Paphitis. “That is design with the simplicity and utility of Muji, and the luxury and materiality of Hermès. They are healthy contradictions. One example is the way many serious chefs now treat foraged produce with a sense of preciousness.”

Paphitis is nothing if not a perfectionist. The Aesop HQ in Melbourne – housed in an immaculate, industrial building with painted brickwork – is mission control for a team of 300 staff worldwide. The scores of Melbourne employees sit on black Herman Miller chairs in all-white rooms at pale-wood desks, with black PCs; they communicate via email exclusively in Arial Narrow and use one style of black pen – a classic Bic. “The least significant details and those that are less publicly visible still matter,” says Paphitis, pointing out the empty seats at midday. “We prohibit lunches at desks because people should see the sun, take a break, eat good food, and not be tapping out emails simultaneously.”

Aesop’s style of modernism can be habit-forming. Many customers use only Aesop products. “I don’t like to see brands or logos in my home,” says Jean-Luc Colonna, managing director of Parisian concept store Merci. “I feel better seeing an Aesop bottle every morning in my bathroom than an over-marketed brand.” Sarah Temple, an influential voice in graphic design in the UK and a course director at the London College of Communication, enjoys Aesop’s alignment with intellect and creativity. “I’ve never been treated to quotes from Hunter S Thompson or directed to art movies before by a face cream,” she says. “And there’s a strange otherworldliness about the stores, with the dark bottles and stark interiors.” Aesop is playful, but doesn’t play on customer’s anxieties. As Jo Nagasaka, the architect behind the brand’s stores in the Aoyama and Ginza areas of Tokyo, says, “The Aesop approach is liked by real women for whom the fantasy of the traditional beauty industry is too extreme.”

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Nagasaka is one of a handful of creatives with whom Paphitis has worked to perfect Aesop’s image. The new Soho store is by design firm Ciguë, which also created an installation at Merci in Paris and the standalone Aesop store in the Marais, creating shelving from 427 steel parts from the French capital’s plumbing network. Within Grand Central Station, Brooklyn-based designers Tacklebox fashioned an Aesop booth from stacks of copies of The New York Times; in Singapore, March Studio hung 30km of coconut-husk string in strands from the ceiling – the effect was more art installation than retail space. “It has an earthy, vernacular approach that has more in common with hotel, restaurant or bar design,” says Marcus Fairs, editor and founder of design blog Dezeen. “You can see the same philosophy of earthiness and modesty in other brands, such as Cowshed. And if you walk down Redchurch Street in London, where Aesop has a store, you’ll see many cutting-edge fashion brands starting to use the same combination of raw display materials and nostalgic marketing.”

Aesop is intrepid in the selection of its store locations, arriving in areas before any of its peers would perceive them as commercial places. It moved into east London’s Redchurch Street after Shoreditch House and Boundary opened there, but while there was still just tumbleweed in terms of retail. “Now the big brands are desperate for space there,” says O’Keefe.

As well as having a nose for the next place to be, Aesop targets on-message hotels, cafés and restaurants. In the past its products have graced the Tokyo Park Hyatt, London’s Rochelle Canteen and Hakkasan, and the Brother Baba Budan coffee shops back home in Melbourne. It’s also in the washrooms of the VIP private tailoring consultation room at Brioni in Old Bond Street. Indeed, many loyal customers have come to the brand via a trip to the bathroom, where they’ve discovered the Resurrection Duet of Aromatique Handwash and Balm (£83).

The rise of Aesop has gone hand in hand with a growing public interest in typography: the feature-length documentary Helvetica explored the influence of the font, while Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, “a book about fonts”, is a bestseller. Many customers love Aesop for its simple, modern sans-serif fonts in Optima Medium. “You can communicate as much with a font as a photograph,” says Rasmus Ibfelt, managing director of e-Types design agency, which also runs the typography store Playtype in Copenhagen. “Aesop’s labelling takes everything that is usually on the back of a product and puts it on the front. It’s a strong reference to pharmacy products.” It’s a style that sits comfortably with the brown glass and rubber-and-glass pipette of the bestselling Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum (£43). It’s about simplicity, authenticity and credibility.

Whatever the connotations, Aesop is a runaway success. Tellingly, there is only one set of treatments offered outside of the Aesop stores in Melbourne, Sydney and Hong Kong, and they are three men’s treatments at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. It’s that kind of a brand – one that collaborates with APC to create the perfect Fine Fabric Care detergent for clothing (£25), calls one of its gift sets Celestial Mechanics (£83) and produces a Ginger Flight Therapy stick (£21) to apply to your pulse points on that long-haul journey at the front of an A380. It represents a new kind of modernism, with a keen sense of play as much as business aptitude. When Aesop designed the treatment room in the basement of its South Yarra store, all was serene and white, apart from a single line of text written on the ceiling, a quote attributed to Janis Joplin: “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”

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