Edited by Meghan Scott
Next year, in 2020 Aesop celebrates 33 years as a brand and are releasing a 336 page book. The book is filled with deep insights into the brand, what makes Aesop authentic and how they have come to survive the fast evolving beauty industry. The book is carefully curated in the true aura of the world that is Aesop, wrapped in a soft beige linen fabric and filled with photographs taken by Yutaka Yamamoto, speaks a language of natural light and shadow play that is very much the brand.
Aesop was founded in 1987 in Melbourne Australia by Dennis Paphitis, the name comes from a greek fabulist and is pronounced ee-sop. Back then Dennis had a hair salon called Elemis, this is where the saga began, and where the first products developed that we today know as Aesop.
To me Aesop has always been a soft, sensual world of wonderful textures and skincare. I was first introduced to the brand about 12 years ago when a friend took me to the shop on Redchurch Street in London, and I have since then always had an handwash among other of the brand’s products in my bathroom. The textures aren’t only present in the beauty they create, but also every time you enter a shop. Every location is carefully designed, depending on where the light hit the windows to gather the natural light that compliments the interior and architectural thoughtfulness. You might wonder why they're releasing a book on their 33rd year. I recently had the pleasure to meet their co-founder, Suzanne Santos, Marsha Meredith (Creative Director), and Kate Forbes (General Manager of Sustainability and Innovation, R&D), and learned about many insights, one of them being that uneven numbers are aesthetically popular within the brand. You will never see products lined up on the shelves of an Aesop shop evenly.
I had the chance to sit down with Meredith and Forbes and asked her a few questions.
Q&A with Marsha Meredith, Creative Director of Aesop:
PD: How long have you been with Aesop? And what did you do before joining the company?
MM: Five years now. I was working in advertising, but I always enjoyed working on projects besides advertising between the art world and the community. Ideally a project that would use creativity to assist in a community in some way. I think looking back, that was why I was suited to the role with Aesop.
PD: Was it an instant yes to joining the brand?
MM: I think Aesop is a company that is very alluring for anyone who is a creative person, there is a tremendous subtlety in it’s expression. I have always admired Aesop. And then when I had my interview with CEO, Michael O'keefe, I asked him what the plan was for the company and he said that he wanted to maintain and enhance our differences moving forward. I remembered that when he said that to me and my heart sort of moved, and I felt this is the company I want to work for. The other wonderful thing with company is that you are experiencing us now… from the outside. And you know that it's an aesthetically driven company, it’s beautiful and the service and products are good. The more you get to know Aesop, the more you understand the values of the company are what drives it. It is an ongoing relationship that only improves.
PD: What made you decide to create a book about Aesop?
MM: It had something to do with our 33rs year as a company, we are heading in to our 33rd year and we’ve created a book with 33 chapters.
PD: Ah ok uneven numbers I hear…
MM: Haha yes exactly and each chapter delves into different parts of the business, from collaborations and partnerships, our approach, to hosting, and service to our artistry and product design. And our store design as well. But really what I would hope is that when you read the book, what will surface through the words is our tremendous dedication that underpins the gestures that we do at Aesop.
PD: Did you have all the 33 chapters done in beforehand?
MM: No, we of course had more than 33 and also subchapters within each chapter. I think one of the beautiful things about working on a book is the editing process. I always believe that you should make more than you need and then you can start to cut down and we definitely had a lot of editing to do. My favourite chapter is the quote on the first page:
‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work,and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and open sea.’
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
PD: Such a beautiful quote!
MM: Absolutely! It’s a company that everyone is inspired by, everyone is working to their highest caliber within thinking and execution. We are all inspired by each other. This is an incredible quote so summarise Michael’s style of working as a CEO.
PD: When did you start with the process?
MM: It’s funny because I thought I heard someone say that it was 12 months, but I feel like it was only six months, to be honest. We did it quite quickly, we set quite a pace, and when we handed it over, which I was surprised that we did actually hand it over. I almost wish we could start it over again. I feel like we could make another book!
PD: How did you choose the photographer? When I think of Aesop I get this Japanese feeling overall, is that intentional?
MM: The photographer is definitely Japanese, he lives in Paris, we have a lot of store photography which you can see online. We wanted to have a different expression for this book, a more poetic expression and Yutaka really delivers that. I agree with you that you get a Japanese sensibility from it. I think it’s an appreciation of light, more importantly, he shoots with only natural light. He’s very good at capturing a mood and an ephemeral quality to space. It's because he only focuses on light and shadow.
PD: Did you have any challenges with creating the book? What was the biggest one?
MM: The most challenging was that we have collaborators across the globe, we had a Japanese photographer, an Australian writer, Swedish designer, Scottish editor and I was based in New York. And to find the language and the time to meet was a little bit challenging at times. I think the results are far greater for the talent we had involved, so I am very happy that we did that and even though it was not the easiest way to do things. And the other challenge for us was handing it over to Rizzoli and saying, “Ok, it is finished”. I never felt that that day was gonna be real! I’ve never done a book before, so I feel more than privileged to be able to do it for Aesop. I’m glad that it's a way of expressing my gratitude to Susanne and Dennis.
PD: Did you have a certain inspiration, besides Aesop, for the book?
MM: To be honest when we decided to make a book for Aesop, I quite quickly wrote down a list of themes and chapters, I feel I live and breath Aesop every day, so it wasn't a struggle. I worked very closely to Dennis with it which was an absolute pleasure as well, the most joyful project.
Q&A with Kate Forbes, General Manager of Product and RND, Sustainability, Focus of Today, of Aesop:
PD:How long have you been with Aesop?
KF: 19 years now, I joined in 2000.
PD: What has made you stay in the position of developing products?
KF: What’s kept me is staying true to the brand’s history and that's why it felt like the moment to create this book. There has been this thread carried throughout and it’s important that we talk about that and share it with our internal employees, as well as people who have been loyal and a part of our journey for this time.
It’s been a big and incredible journey, the brand was actually small when I first started and we were just a wholesale business. The first store opened in 2003 in Melbourne. In 2000, Aesop was already a global business, Dennis had these wholesale relationships, some concept stores in Japan and New York. So, actually he was developing products with a global mindset from outset. Which is what has helped us become such a global brand, we are not seen as an australian brand.
I personally think the product range was very small back then, so there's been a huge opportunity. We then had 30 products and now have more than a hundred. To be able to develop and explore the range, but all very carefully and slowly. We introduce 4-5 products every year, so it’s been a slow expansion. Everything feels like it’s constantly moving with Aesop, growing and expanding and slightly changing.
PD: How much research and development does it take to create a product?
KF: It’s slow, it’s certainly slow skincare. That's what we do at Aesop, slow skincare and development, every product is created inhouse. We have our laboratory in Melbourne and our products are developed from scratch, every time.
It probably takes us about two years to bring a product to market. In the initial stage we look at what ingredients we need for a certain product. We have just launched a skincare product for sensitive skin, Seeking Silence Facial Hydrator, with that product it was about knowing that we’ve heard our customers globally, so many people were talking about having sensitive skin. We had products suitable for sensitive skin, but nothing formulated specifically for this need. It was really about every single ingredient, why do we put this ingredient in and what benefit does it have when considering sensitive skin. What do we actually want to help treat or what are the symptoms people are talking about, how could we incorporate different ingredients that helps them feel more comfortable. This takes time, because we may test a few products, but then there is always room for improvement, so we keep utilating until arriving to the point where we have a product that we are really proud of.
PD: Please tell me about the Poo-drops, how did you come up with the product idea?
KF: Haha, it’s such a great story! This was not a two year development, but actually a product that we were using in the office. We were blending all of our essential oils in our laboratory and making them into bigger batches and then sending to our production facility. There is always a little oil residue in the end of the cannisters of rose, orange and bergamot and we were using ethanol to rinse out to make sure it was clean. Then we’d decant it in bottles and thought, ‘What are we gonna do with these?”. So we started to use the new solution as toilet deodorizers in the office and it worked. One day we thought, “Why don’t we just launch this as a product? It’s really effective.” We were a bit hesitant to launch it in the beginning, but it’s been incredibly successful. Particularly at christmas time, it’s a really interesting gift that people like to add.
PD: I’ve seen Aesop bottles being filled up with other brands, why do you think that happens?
KF: Haha we’ll I would have hoped that the product itself makes them feel good as well! But, I’m not sure, there are stories about restaurants doing the same thing and if we do find it, we usually try to tell the manager. It was never intentionally designed that this Aesop bottle was gonna be a canister or dispenser. We designed it because it was a good design, but it is common, hopefully not too common. The refilling thing does happen, I guess. I think for us, we are looking at ideas about making those everyday experiences more enjoyable and I think that happens visually by the simple clean look of this bottle. Hopefully, it happens aesthetically or in a sense of smell and touch, actually using the product itself, just the art of washing your hands, can just be a little bit more enjoyable.
PD: What are your favourite travel buddies from Aesop?
KF: Since I have a job where I have to travel so much, as yourself, it’s hard on my skin. Being on planes all the time, not being able to have a normal routine, forgetting to drink water, it has such a big impact on your skin. I probably have two or three go-to products that are always with me. We have a product called, Blue Chamomile Facial Hydrating Mask, it's a hydrating mask, but it has an invisible shield as you put it on your skin, you can’t actually see that you have it on your skin. It’s not like a sheet mask. I’ve actually used it on the plane, it delivers hydration and locks in moisture and makes a big difference when traveling.. The resurrection hand balm is always something that is always in my handbag, in a tube. We launched two travel kits this year, ‘Departure’ and ‘Arrival’. The departure kit include products you may need during your flight like, Blue Chamomile Hydrating Mist and lip ointment.. Arrival are the products you would need in the bathroom when you arrive, shampoo, conditioner, body cleanser and body balm. Both come in travel size packaging.
PD: During your 19 years with Aesop, has the skincare changed much?
KF: Some of the formulations have actually been in our range for a long time, we are not constantly changing our formulations or are tied to how we develop. What ingredients we use in what has not changed. We are 100% consistent in what we do. The type of formulations that we’re currently developing are implemented in different ingredient technology. We are able to do things that we couldn't do before because the process didn’t exist. The way some ingredients are sourced, different textures to be able to have, different types of emollient ingredients that can give you that rich hydration, but not a heavy afterfeel. In terms of those different ingredients that are available, has changed. Our way and approach of our formulations are so consistent and that is something very much a part of our DNA and what we do.
PD: Is that why you have such a stable customer base? Once you meet Aesop, you are hooked.
It's also the experience, and the products I hope, and that ability to have an open honest conversation with the consultants that doesn't feel like people are trying to just push you something or sell you something. It’s really about what's the right thing for you, giving you the ability to try it, test and sample it, smell it, get the full sensory experience and I think people really appreciate the time that they’re getting in our stores. Some people can feel uncomfortable, but that ability for someone to be able to really show you what this product can do and to demonstrate it, is so powerful.
PD: What are the challenges in having a beauty brand in 2019, with new beauty brands constantly launching?
KF: Yes, there’s different competition now from when we started, different ways customers are shopping, getting information as well, so there’s probably still a lot of misinformation. We’ve always stayed true to ourselves, and if we continue to stay true, I feel that we can continue to be different and have a point of difference. Experiences that people get walking in to our store, there are other brands that might offer products that report to do the same thing, but I don’t think there’s anyone else that offers the experience that we have and the connection we provide.
PD: Lastly, what is the it Aesop ‘must have’ product, if there’s someone out there who has never tried anything, without any particular need?
KF: If you just want to try a product to know what the Aesop experience is, the obvious answer would be the Resurrection Hand Wash. The Geranium Leaf Body Cleanser is a beautiful body wash to use and has such a different aroma to what other people are using. I would love for people to try one of our fragrances, we only have three, and the one that I think is the most representative of Aesop is, The Marrakesh. It’s the fragrance we first had in our range, and it’s something so unique and intense, there’s nothing else out there like it. The hand cream is also another obvious answer, always in my handbag, and the Resurrection Hand Balm.