Aesop: the stuff of fables (Financial Times How to Spend it)

The area around Silver Place in London’s Soho has become a satellite to some 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 the brand’s now iconic brown apothecary bottles on enamel shelves, has completed the scene.

Aesop is one of the biggest international success stories in skincare today. At the end of this year, in which the brand celebrates its 25th anniversary, there will be 45 stores across the world – Soho’s being the first new opening of 2012.  Founder Dennis Paphitis started out as a hairdresser with a salon, an idea and a few bottles of his own formulation of rosemary and sage oil in 1987. Inspired by an architectural firm he’d encountered three years earlier in Florence, which had switched from working with buildings to experimental design with recycled paper, he honed Aesop’s imagery. Since then, Aesop has become a creative pioneer in its own right. Despite its determination to fly just 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 filmmaker Lucy McRae, who describes herself as a “body architect”, on a serious and arresting short film that mixes offbeat beauty imagery with plasma packs 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 Herman Ludwig Helmholtz and his research on human perception,” says McRae. “As he said, ‘Everything is an event on the skin’.” As a visual artist, McRae feels empathy with 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 brand’s product. Less is more. As Suzanne Santos, Aesop’s long standing “product advocate” explains: “the very first products that Dennis formulated self-sold themselves because of their difference to what was available. There was no colour or artificial fragrance. The formulation was startlingly new.” Similarly, today, there is no quasi-religious experience promised with your morning toilette, no comparison with the results of surgical procedure and no airbrushed advertising. As Ed Burstell, buying director at key Aesop stockist Liberty, who also introduced the brand to the US at Henri Bendel says: “They 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 is transparently scientific. The two main Vitamin C types they use are empirically quantified anti-oxidant 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. “They were one of the first brands to talk about anti-oxidants,” says Sarah Lerfel from Colette in Paris, the brand’s first French stockist. The Perfect Facial Hydrating Cream (£73) and B Triple C Balancing Gel (£67) are two of Aesop’s most premium anti-oxidant products. Along with perfect form and persuasive function, the Aesop aromas of orange, rose, parsley seed and frankincense are consistently seductive; the house style never veers from a fragrance axis of herbal and citrus, with touches of incense that evoke chapels, Byzantium and stately libraries.

Aesop Paris, design by March Studios

Aesop’s products are cruelty free: they aren’t tested on animals and – with the exception of one shaving brush containing badger hair – 100% vegan. Their ethics make them surprisingly unusual in the modern marketplace. While an EU-wide ban on the marketing of any new beauty products tested on animals is imminent, PETA’s current online directory of the guilty – even if the guilt is by association, as a subsidiary – still reads like an audit of many bathroom cabinets, including well loved brands like Kiehl’s and Aveeno. Big companies are working their way off the list via sizeable investment into alternatives, but Aesop has never been anywhere it. At the same time, Aesop’s formulation shuns the fashionable but arguably shallow marketing drive of “100% organic” – after all, you could, theoretically, formulate organic poison. Aveda-founder Horst Rechelbacher, who now runs the edible body product range Intelligent Nutrients believes there are red herrings aplenty: “It is toxins that count, not whether something is labelled organic or natural”.

The presence of parabens in skincare products has been a major industry and consumer issue, after ongoing studies pointed towards possible carcinogenic properties. Some highly credible companies that cheerlead for antioxidants contain pareabens. Aesop’s range is 100% paraben free, while mixing toxin-free synthetics and botanics, for very specific aims, for a distinct urban consumer who has now developed affinity with the range. A case in point: the Oil Free Facial Hydrating Serum with aloe vera juice (£39) has been formulated to moisturise skin in particularly humid cities. When you’re on your way to your first meeting of the day in Bangkok, it doesn’t slide off your face.

Laboratory dynamism aside, Aesop’s presentation has provoked a quiet but visible revolution within a sector of retail. “There are now over 15 companies that use those brown bottles,” says CEO Michael O’Keefe. Aesop’s creative collaborations are similarly influential. Companies like REN now produce provocative, adult-oriented short films, distributed via their website and social media, to support their products. Fragrance company Le Labo echoes the lo-fi Aesop style with its typewriter and rubber-stamp typefaces, and the new Heliocosm store in Paris could, if you squint, be a new branch of Aesop, with its sparse but bold high-concept wood-tunnel interior, bare bulbs and dark refillable flaçons.

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’s shoes and hotels and the concrete stairwells of Dover Street Market. It’s a self-aware modernism. Like a heavy-twill navy 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 the glossy hard sell. They want functionality, authenticity and restrained luxury. “The Italian design firm that inspired me in the 1980s, called &A, were working with recycled paper as a reaction against decorative Florentine marbled stationery,” says Paphitis. “Aesop is now part of a small movement that’s best described as the Muji-Hermes paradigm. That’s design with the simplicity and utility of Muji and the luxury and materiality of Hermes. They are healthy contradictions. The best examples can be evidenced by the way many serious chefs now treat foraged produce with a sense of preciousness.” That lifestyle Zeitgeist and paradigm is expanding: There’s even Aesop-branded Yarra Valley Cabernet Shiraz and chocolate – “for customers and friends – not for sale”. Both would, no doubt, be a roaring success if made commercially available.

Aesop Singapore, design by March Studios

Aesop Singapore, design by March Studios

Paphitis is nothing if not a perfectionist. The Aesop HQ in Melbourne – housed within an immaculate, industrial building with blacked-out brickwork – is mission control for a team of 300 worldwide. The scores of Melbourne employees sit on black Herman Miller chairs in all-white rooms, at pale wood desks, with black PCs, communicate via email exclusively in Arial Narrow and use only one single style of black pen – a classic Bic. “The least significant details and those that are less publically visible still matter,” says Paphitis, pointing out the empty seats at midday. “We prohibit the consumption of lunches at desks,” he says. “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, the managing director of the concept store Merci, in Paris. “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 University of Arts 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. And there’s a strange other-worldliness about the stores, with the dark liquid and stark interiors.” Aesop is playful, but doesn’t play on their customer’s anxieties. As Jo Nagasaka, the architect behind the brands stores in Aoyama and Ginza, says: “The Aesop approach is liked by real women for whom the fantasy of the traditional beauty industry is too extreme.”

Nagasaka is one of a handful of creatives with whom Paphitis has worked to elaborate on Aesop’s visibility. The new Soho store is by designers Ciguë, who also created an installation at Merci in Paris and the standalone Aesop store in the Marais, creating shelving from 427 steel caps 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. “They have an earthy, vernacular approach that has more in common with hotel, restaurant or bar design,” says Marcus Fairs, the editor of influential 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 have 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 with its openings, arriving in areas before any of their peers would see them as viable. They moved into Redchurch Street after Shoreditch House and Boundary opened there, but while there was still just tumbleweed in terms of retail. “Now the big Italian brands are desperate for space there,” says O’Keefe. “So we’re looking at areas like Dalston.”

As well as having a nose for the next place to be, Aesop pinpoint on-message hotels, cafes and restaurants. In the past that has included Claska in Tokyo, London’s Rochelle Canteen and Hakkasan and, back home in Melbourne, the cavernous Seven Seeds coffee shop, with its exposed pipework and sliding factory doors. It’s also in the toilets of the upstairs, VIP, private tailoring consultation room at Brioni on Old Bond Street. Many loyal customers have come to the brand via a trip to the bathroom during a meal, where they’ve discovered the Resurrection Duet of Aromatique Handwash (£27) and Balm (£67). Even if they aren’t the first brand to make handwash sexy, it’s now their pump dispensers that punctuate the sleekest interiors shoots and showrooms.

Aesop New York City, design by TACKLEBOX

Aesop New York City, design by Tacklebox

The rise of Aesop has gone hand in hand with a mainstream interest in typography: The font Helvetica inspired a feature length documentary and Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, “a book about fonts”, is a best seller. Many customers love Aesop for its simple, modern mix of serif and sans-serif fonts: Aesop doesn’t have a logo per se, it’s just “Aesop” in Optima Medium. “You can communicate as much with a font as a photograph now,” says Rasmus Ibfelt, Managing Director of the e-Type design agency, which also runs the typography store Playtype in Copenhagen. “Aesop’s labelling takes everything that is usually on the back side 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 best selling Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum (£39). It’s about simplicity, authenticity and credibility.

Whatever the connotations, Aesop has become a runaway success. It speaks to a well-travelled, urbane customer. Tellingly, there is only one set of Aesop 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 A.P.C to create the perfect Fine Fabric Care detergent for clothing (£23), calls one of its gift sets Celestial Mechanics, and produces a Ginger Flight Therapy stick (£19) 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. Lying on your back in the treatment room in the basement of Aesop’s South Yarra store, all is serene and white, apart from a single line of text written on the ceiling above your head, a quote attributed to Janis Joplin: ‘Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.’


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