With over 150 stores all around the world, Melbourne-born globally loved skincare brand Aesop is well known for creating bespoke, meaningful retail experiences as much as they are known for their skincare, haircare and bodycare range. Portia Campbell spoke to General Manager Suzanne Santos about the role of botanicals in skincare, the inspiration behind the fit out of their Osborne Lane store and discovered just where that famous name came from…
Aesop was created in Melbourne almost 30 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about the story behind the brand?
If you had asked me at the beginning, I could never have imagined that we would end up here. In the beginning there was no formalised strategy or intent to end up here. So to that end, Aesop grew, with beautiful precision because there’s nothing that Dennis (Paphitis, Aesop’s founder) does that doesn’t have precision, but it was really a very uncomplicated destiny. The tipping point for us was certainly Dennis’ decision that haircare, in the first instance, could be improved upon and that there were ingredients that were surely no longer relevant and that botanical ingredients had to have a place. He wanted to know how they could be integrated. How essential could oils be integrated. How the benefits of essential oils could form part of the formulation that could make a difference to hair care.
From being sold in salons to being accepted into David Jones, the origin of the body care, the Resurrection Aromatique Hand Balm, the pretty rapid development into the bath oils, foaming bath cleansers, all of that is really the history of who we have become. The success of people responding to what was produced, how we communicated it, and the gentle handling of one to one introduction, gave Dennis the confidence to then move into skincare. And that skincare is the foundation of why we are here today. The idea that cosmetics could be formulated in a different way and could be sold in a different way, could be communicated in a different way and that people would listen and use and follow and tell others, is where it all evolved. And along the way, really with incredible fortune, people came along and fell onto the path. As Dennis built the brand, developed it further here, introduced to people there, he became more mature too. Dennis has always been an autodidactic person – he will forever see the world in a very different way. He has this sense of quality in a non-pretentious way, in a world full of great pretention around what is actually a luxury. I think it is the single reason, in many ways that people have responded and the company has grown.
What is your role at Aesop?
I’m involved with our retail operations, the execution and the detail, and the maintaining and ownership of the detail around our execution of our stores. I’m also involved with training, so all of those sorts` of things combined. That said, many people are involved with a company of our size and so many people are contributing to the same thing.
We used to be Emeis, which means we in Greek and then a long time ago, in the days of the fax, someone sent us a fax overnight inferring that they would be litigious if we continued to use the name. They believed that the name that they had registered before us was too similar and that our areas would crossover. That was an incredible moment – it sounded extremely frightening at the time. In the end, it turned into the most fortuitous of changes because, I don’t think Emeis would have been a lesser word, but because there’s a back of mind memory association with the word Aesop, it tends to be retained, as opposed to a word that people hadn’t heard before. So there’s a bit of psychology in the word, but of course none of this was considered at the time. Dennis was much more drawn to the notion of having prophetic thought, words of wisdom and proverbs. And so that’s where it came from – a response to a challenge.
It’s 10am on a Sunday morning. Where would we find you and what are you doing?
I’m more than likely not in Melbourne, my hometown. Most weekends we leave the city and we visit family, or we go to the sea. And at 10 o’clock in the morning, I will either be at a market where I’ll be procuring ingredients for the following week. Then I’ll be walking along the beach, beside the sea.
Describe the Aesop customer.
I think, generally speaking, to walk into one of our stores, you’ve probably got purpose and it may well be that you’re here because of a recommendation, or because you’ve had an experience that has drawn you into the store. So there’s an Aesop characteristic that has curiosity around it. Many people come to our stores because they’ve tried a product that a friend has used, but they might not know the whole picture of how many stores we have or how long we have been around. There are a lot of very brave individuals amongst people who come through our doors. Brave for not needing to make such a personal decision based on convention.
Do you have a favourite Aesop product? If yes, why that particular product?
There’s not a product that we make that I don’t feel represents exactly who we are. So to that end, I would encourage people to come and ask questions and find out about aspects of what we do, which is our skincare obviously, but haircare and bodycare too. Come and ask questions and see if they can find for themselves a product that resonates. For me, they all have a place in meeting the fundamental requirements of life. And they do so exquisitely and they do so to the very best of our ability. I think that’s more important than my favourite product. I really cannot extinguish a host of products and then highlight one particular one. And like anyone, I move through the products depending on why I’m using that product at that particular moment.
What is your personal beauty regime?
I am drawn inside those bottles and because I am blessed to have the choice, I am moving through different cleansers, different moisturisers and different treatment oils all the time. I don’t really have monogamy with products within our range. But I am absolutely regular in cleansing my face twice a day, and at night I just use a face wash. You become very addicted to putting a puddle of toner into the palm of your hand and patting it on your face. And I use a lot of moisturiser. I think that people completely underestimate how much they need. They never even use their hands for guidance as to how much moisture is lost through the body everyday. My regime absolutely blends our oils, moisturisers, using them singularly but layers of them, to truly hydrate the skin.
What are your 3 travel essentials?
It depends on where you are going and how long you are going for. To me, a body cleanser is really critical. In my life, a face cleanser is also critical. If I need to, I can wash my hair with a body cleanser, but with my face, there isn’t an option. If it’s true travel, I take a tube of the Purifying Facial Cream Cleanser. It’s perfect for everybody and can be used in or out of the shower, so it’s really useful when travelling. And then you can’t travel without a great moisturiser. Your skin will always be affected by travel, so depending on whether you are going to a warm climate or a cold climate, I’d take a product like Elemental Barrier Cream if it’s cold, because it’s the type of barrier cream that truly protects your skin from the weather. And if you’re heading to warmer weather, I would absolutely take Parsley Seed Serum, because it will compensate for the artificial coolness that you will likely be in and will also help to manage to the heat.
Can you tell us about the design principles behind the Aesop brand and packaging?
It’s a very pragmatic subject. In the first instance, the brown glass was chosen to protect and reduce the need for such high quantities of man-made preservatives. Glass is inert, which is why our skincare remains inside it. Our very special tubes ensure that the packaging doesn’t disrupt the formulation of our products. The communication, the written word, the idea of encouraging people to read a few decisive words to tell you what to do, is again purposeful, it’s consistent. There’s something comforting to the eye about it as well and the packaging is forever being attended to in some way. To improve it as best we can. It’s a much considered area for Aesop.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life career-wise and why?
Dennis, because he crafted this career for me. To have had the experience of working in a company like this, and with Michael (O’Keefe, Aesop’s Chief Executive), with men like that, has been the great fortune of my life. It has given me a career and has given me a life I could never have drafted as a story of fiction. Most importantly it has had this moral fibre from the very first day and to have been in a workplace where questions of right and wrong are how things were learned and remain to be learned is very important.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the fit out of your new Newmarket store…
One of the biggest factors of our new store is the materiality and the exploration of those materials. Pattersons really wanted to touch on the raw simplicity of the New Zealand washhouse and the rudimental materials that are used in a beach house. So we have created a relaxed domestic atmosphere. We’ve used a local recycled rimu timber. We chose this because of it’s colour and it’s relationship to New Zealand. This is the first time we’ve used galvanised steel and while it is an industrial material, we have actually softened it up by hand applying soap to the surface to make it feel a bit more lived in and bit more old, rather than a new material. If you look at that domestic atmosphere, the unit along the wall in store harks to the old china cabinet that is often found in older New Zealand homes. The sink is important too as they are also found in New Zealand wash houses. These beautiful found objects, domesticity, all come together to create a space that is approachable, but one that also makes sense in New Zealand. You wouldn’t be able to pick this store up and place it in Paris, for example, it just wouldn’t work. In terms of the street scape, we never want to impose. We want to arrive and we want to engage with the community and we want to add to the streetscape rather than being something that detracts from the street.