The Age of Aesop

How does a beauty brand take over the fashion world? Contrary to what you might think, high-profile fashion week sponsorships and celebrity endorsements are not the only thing that grabs the attention of the industry– particular when its members prioritize quality, style, and aesthetic sensibility. Aesop embodies all of these elusive qualities, and in the last decade, the Australian beauty company has slowly taken over as the treasured label of the creative industry. From their lush body soaps and face serums, to their cheeky “post-poo”-drops and  truly luxurious animal shampoo, Aesop is a total aesthetic solution to the maintenance of your body. Add to this an subtle design profile, a slow growth model and a long-standing love affair with next-level interior architecture, and you’ve got a real recipe of success. But how did a small beauty range launched by a Melbourne hairdresser in the late 80s become a global sensation? We sat down with Suzanne Santos, the brand’s general manager who has been overseeing its steady growth since the very beginning.

How do you remember the beginnings of Aesop, launching in 1987 with Dennis Paphitis? What was your background?
I remember it with affection. Dennis was young and had more energy and creative ideas than anyone I’d ever met. At the forefront of his thinking was the sensory experience, and the priorities for our first tiny studio were lighting, aroma, music, coffee and quality reading material; an unchanged approach to now. Prior to meeting Dennis, I began university twice, dropped out twice, and backpack travelled.

How would you say the beauty market has changed in the last 30 years?
When we began there were so few cosmetic brands in Melbourne, and those that did exist were mostly the foundational grand companies of today. We emerged in 1987 as a fledgling brand with a completely unfamiliar approach that was different to the promotional tone based on vulnerability so often present in the cosmetic industry. Formulas have deeply evolved and become far more sophisticated over the past 30 years, as pharmacological R&D has introduced new textures and active ingredients to the market. However, the proliferation of products with little value or worth to the individual has hit a screaming crescendo in recent years.

Beauty products using “natural” ingredients have become an increasingly hollowed marketing term – and is not always particularly useful or safe for human use. What is a good product, in your view?
A great product is one where the company’s focus and investment is that of efficacy, and the experience of the product’s application and use is joyous. We have never described ourselves as a natural brand, we didn’t need a self-label like that. We remain a product-focused company and launch new formulations for skin, hair and body, in response to genuine needs expressed by our customers. We investigate widely to source plant-based and laboratory-made ingredients, and have never wavered from our intent to use only those with a proven record of safety and efficacy.

All your products are quite unique, and more or less oblivious to the rapid trends of the beauty industry. How do you develop new products – and what does it take to launch it on a global scale?
From its inception, Aesop has forged its own path in the beauty industry. We ignore the idea of product trends and industry conventions by only formulating products and categories that speak to real lives. Our honest and genuine approach resonates with customers and our products become a trusted friend that is not easily superseded. Launching a new product touches our entire company. We share conversation with every local market, and our customers are always considered in our actions. Working with plant-based and man-made ingredients is not always straightforward. Generally, it takes at least two years to develop a new Aesop product. Occasionally, it can take longer depending on the complexity of the formula. Our approach is to take all the time necessary to ensure each new product is of the highest quality. Our highly skilled in-house chemists scrutinise and perfect every aspect of the formula before a new product is launched. They also undertake rigorous testing to ensure efficacy, stability and safety of all Aesop product formulations. At any one time, we may have up to 20 products in various stages of development, though perhaps only several make it to market.
At the dawn of a new product, everyone within the company still receives their bottle!

 Who is your customer – and has this changed in recent years?
Our customers think about what and how they consume. They are unpretentious and interested in quality and sincerity, not needing advertising clichés to define what is of worth. They are well-read, and worldly in their outlook. They encounter us most frequently via friends or family who have recommended our products, or via the sensory appeal of our spaces. These are the common threads, enduring throughout the company’s growth. Those who stay with Aesop are customers whose shared sense of the world keeps us together. Having our own standalone stores has created a home based environment for our customers to return to. Like us, they desire a lasting relationship rather than a single encounter.

Your romance with architecture has made your shops tourist destinations in their own right – when and how did this begin?
We believe unequivocally that well-considered design improves our lives, and embody this ethos in every aspect of the company, from retail design to product packaging. Throughout the years, we have been constantly delighted by the unexpected affinities that have come from the negotiation of differences involved in establishing new stores. Our stores and counters are the embodiment of our philosophy and our approach to retail service.

We opened our first retail store in Melbourne in 2003, and now have a presence in over 20 countries around the globe, including signature stores and counters in select department stores. While two Aesop spaces are never the same, when a customer enters any door around the world, they encounter the familiar: the products on our shelves, the knowledge, gracious hospitality and service extended by our consultants, and an aesthetic anchored not only to our sensibility but also to local culture, traditions and materials.

We pay tribute to the creative processes, materials and features that distinguish Aesop spaces, and to the designers and architects with whom we collaborate through Taxonomy of Design, a digital compendium of our signature stores.

What has been the biggest lesson?
There is no single weighted epiphany that defines over 30 years of a company’s existence. I would like to say that, for our 32 years, the value of those that work for Aesop and the value of those who support us as customers is absolutely unwavering.

What Aesop project are you most excited about at the moment?
The opening of more remarkable doors in new cities and the ongoing creation of new products within the portfolio keeps all of us energised.

For more information, see Aesop