Audrey Hepburn once famously remarked: “I owe 50 per cent of my beauty to my mother and the other 50 per cent to Erno Laszlo.” Marilyn Monroe was also a Laszlo devotee – he concocted the now highly desired Phormula 3-8 to heal an appendicectomy scar on her stomach and when newspapers around the world printed photos of Monroe’s deathbed, jars of Laszlo’s Active Phelityl Cream were at her bedside.
Hungarian dermatologist Erno “The Angel of Beauty” Laszlo was the go-to skincare expert in the golden age of Hollywood. His Institute of Scientific Cosmetology, reputedly both a place of science and sanctuary, soon became known as the “House of Silence”, due to the many secrets of the rich and famous kept within its walls. “You weren’t allowed to say who was there,” says new owner Charles Denton (former CEO of Molton Brown). “There might have been Grace Kelly in one room, Marilyn Monroe in the next.” Last autumn saw the reopening of The Institute after a 40-year hiatus, allowing us mere mortals access to the formulations befitting 1950s starlets of the silver screen.
The Institute is still mostly only accessible through membership. However, after an unsuccessful attempt to book a one-off facial, I discover a deal with Gilt City, a location-based deal service. It is offering $100 credit towards a $245 Nutritional Boosting Facial (the usual commitment is $1,000 for three months’ membership, which comprises four facials; or $3,000 for annual membership, comprising 15 facials).
I channel my inner Grace Kelly and sneak into Laszlo’s revived facility. While the original Institute was at 677 Fifth Avenue, the new facility is located at 382 West Broadway between Broome and Spring Streets. I am greeted by a doorman and escorted upstairs with impeccable politeness.
The interior evokes the glamour of a bygone era, with fresh flowers on stands, a bespoke red-leather staircase and a glittering chandelier. Meticulous attention to detail has been put into recreating the original decor – vintage art-deco pieces are mixed with reclaimed furniture, and there’s also a library-cum-lounge that echoes Dr Laszlo’s 1939 study, complete with clippings and images of his Hollywood clientele.
I am escorted to the Heritage Lounge by my beauty specialist, who presents me with a questionnaire to fill out. When it comes to answering the questions about how many glasses of water and how many of alcohol I drink a day, and the climate where I live, I can’t hide the fact I’m a somewhat dehydrated, alcohol-dependent frequent flyer.
We then descend to the multilevel spa. While The Institute’s first floor is open to the public, the six lavish treatment rooms downstairs are strictly off-limits to non-members. (With my deal I am one of the lucky few non-members to get a look-in.)
The room where I am to have my facial is a heavenly white sanctuary with bespoke artwork, and all the technological apparatus tucked discreetly out of view behind a frosted-glass wall. I am instructed to remove all clothing from the waist up, lie down and cover myself with a towel, as the facial will extend to my décolletage. The skin therapist reviews my questionnaire.
I am told that the facial is carefully crafted for each individual client, and high-potency serums are selected and blended to address each person’s particular skin concerns. “These super-serums are formulated by us and require refrigeration due to their active ingredients,” the therapist says as she studies me intently.
I recall Laszlo’s famous words – “A woman may not tell me the truth about everything, but her skin will never lie” – and proceed to offload my skin woes: the winter months have left it feeling a little dry, while certain stubborn areas remain plagued by the occasional spot. The therapist nods and fixes her eyes on my chin. She explains that the facial will involve a cleansing and exfoliating routine followed by a galvanic massage (to help the serum penetrate to the deeper dermis levels), and rounded off by extractions.
After studying my skin, she begins the facial. For the first 15 minutes she cleanses and exfoliates my face thoroughly and then applies the refrigerated serum. It tingles a little, but feels cool and silky. Next is the galvanic massage, which lasts about 20 minutes and focuses on the area I am most concerned about: my jowls. She explains that my skin’s capacity to absorb the serum is increased by the galvanic ions, which also soften the sebum in preparation for those dreaded extractions.
Using two cotton pads, she then begins the extractions, squeezing the sides of my nose and focusing on the blackheads. To draw out the most stubborn, a sharp, tweezer-like tool is used – this is a slightly more uncomfortable sensation than with the pads, but it’s not too painful. She then works on my chin to tackle the hormonal breakouts, before a cooling mask is finally applied to my face to help reduce the redness.
The therapist finishes the treatment by massaging my décolletage, hands, and arms. My face still feels a little warm, and I am handed a mirror. My skin is glowing. At the same time as removing dirt and debris, the treatment has helped to give a fresh, plump look.
I am given a small sample of Institute-formulated serum to take home with me (and keep in the fridge) and use after my cleansing routine. And based on my skin analysis, the therapist also recommends I try a Blue Firmarine treatment.
“As a frequent flyer, moisture is regularly depleted from your skin. This routine will strengthen, renew and firm it,” she explains. “The water-activated Spirulina maxima [fresh-water blue-green algae] in all the Firmarine products is released in phases – delivering key nutrients and encouraging collagen growth for firmer and more elastic skin.” She recommends the Light Controlling Lotion ($45 for 200ml) as a toner and the Blue Firmarine Moisturizer with SPF30 ($195 for 48ml).
My skin is prepped and ready for the outside world, but before I depart I take a little detour via the retail area to peruse the collection. I pick up a Sea Mud Deep Cleansing Bar ($39) – immortalised in Woody Allen’s classic 1977 film Annie Hall – and exit feeling like a film star.
Armed with her blue-algae box of tricks, Spa Junkie pampers at home for four weeks before sneaking back for a second session. Read the results on Saturday January 26.