Suzanne San­tos has been with the brand from its in­cep­tion, tak­ing care of var­i­ous as­pects, from prod­uct QC to men­tor­ing.

Herworld (Singapore) - - CONTENTS - GOH YEE HUAY

An in­ter­view with Suzanne San­tos, the 60-year-old co­founder and now prod­uct ad­vo­cate of Aesop, doesn’t re­ally feel like an in­ter­view.

She of­fers few neatly pack­aged sound­bites – not be­cause she isn’t elo­quent or forth­com­ing, but be­cause she takes time to con­sider each ques­tion be­fore an­swer­ing, of­ten in de­tail and with a slightly philo­soph­i­cal tone. An­swers are in­ter­spersed with her own ques­tions. And top­ics can veer into the un­ex­pected – she asks if she may see baby pho­tos, of­fers kindly advice on rais­ing kids, gives her take on read­ing which, con­trary to doom­say­ers, she reck­ons has been re­dis­cov­ered.

She speaks at length on is­sues she feels strongly about, which are many. These range from social in­equal­ity (“I can’t bear the fact that we still pre­tend there aren’t many peo­ple strug­gling”) and largescale suf­fer­ing to ed­u­ca­tion (“Kids aren’t taught about good nu­tri­tion, how to cook and sur­vive, how to be strong when things get tough”).

When quizzed about her fa­mous loathing of waste­ful­ness and ex­cess, she laughs, ad­mit­ting it’s true. “We have of­fice lunches once a month and I can­not bear it if there’s any food in the fridges at the end of the day that hasn’t been given out to staff or peo­ple who are less for­tu­nate. I get very an­gry about that. Waste is wrong.”

In all, a sit-down with San­tos is more like a con­ver­sa­tion with a wise, no-non­sense and pro­gres­sive aunt with a soft-spo­ken man­ner and sharp in­tel­lect. Which is fit­ting, since Aesop is a brand that’s very much about mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions and ex­changes – with cus­tomers, col­lab­o­ra­tors, and even it­self.

“So many peo­ple have been in­volved in the con­ver­sa­tions that led us to our cur­rent po­si­tion,” says San­tos. “Den­nis [Paphi­tis, co-founder] is a great lis­tener, Michael [O’Ke­effe, CEO] is a great lis­tener. We’ve had many ex­cep­tional peo­ple cross our paths and en­gage with the com­pany. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to see all those lay­ers work­ing with those two men to make us what we are.”

And what they are right now is a global beauty player with 300 stores across 25 coun­tries, and a turnover that on­line trade pub­li­ca­tion

The Busi­ness of Fashion puts at US$215 mil­lion (S$287 mil­lion). Aesop has come a long way from its be­gin­nings in 1987 as four botan­i­cal hair­care prod­ucts sold by Paphi­tis out of his small Mel­bourne hair sa­lon.

San­tos says: “We didn’t

start with com­pany vi­sions and a phi­los­o­phy. It was not a con­trived con­cept put on pa­per. It was about do­ing things with an­other mind­set, an­other at­ti­tude. For starters, what would or would not be in­side the jar. So in terms of a phi­los­o­phy, for­mu­la­tion is the core of who we are.”

From there, other as­pects of the brand’s iden­tity took shape. Dark brown glass bot­tles (now a vis­ual trade­mark of Aesop) house the prod­ucts – not for aes­thetic rea­sons but be­cause they ex­tend their shelf life and re­duce the ar­ti­fi­cial preser­va­tives needed. Glass is also eas­ily pro­duced and re­cy­cled, which fits with the founders’ eco-con­scious­ness.

Paphi­tis’ re­spect for thinkers led to print­ing in­spir­ing quotes on prod­uct pack­ag­ing. And a sim­ple de­sire to share in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ments and wor­thy causes in the arts, cul­ture and so­ci­ety re­sulted in The Fab­u­list and The Ledger – news­let­ters pro­duced by Aesop which aren’t about the prod­ucts they sell. Both are free on the brand’s web­site, in­tended purely for read­ing plea­sure and as brain food.

“Den­nis is a very quiet and shy man, but his pres­ence [in the brand] is ex­tremely deep. There are very few in­de­pen­dent thinkers on this earth, peo­ple who nat­u­rally think dif­fer­ently from oth­ers, and he is some­one born with that very rare per­son­al­ity,” she says.

Ask San­tos about her own hand­prints on the com­pany she’s nur­tured since its in­cep­tion, how­ever, and she is re­luc­tant to over­state her in­flu­ence. “I would say there are a few touches that I’ve had a part in, but there are many other hands in this com­pany. Many peo­ple have given enor­mously and their voices are much greater,” she says.

In­tended or not, her dis­creet grace and aver­sion to hype are traits shared by Aesop, a brand that has per­fected the art of sell­ing by not sell­ing. While many brands bank on fa­mous faces, catchy slo­gans or hy­per­bolic claims, Aesop never ad­ver­tises, doesn’t use celebrity en­dorse­ments, and states con­tents and func­tions plainly on its pack­ag­ing.

“We never ever look at other cos­metic com­pa­nies. Not be­cause we’re rude or dis­mis­sive, but we never saw our­selves as com­pet­ing with them. And we’re still not in that po­si­tion. Our prod­ucts sit firmly in the com­mer­cial world, but we don’t look to oth­ers as a ref­er­ence for what we should do,” says San­tos.

In­stead, the brand looks in­wards. Both San­tos and Paphi­tis have stated in in­ter­views that around 80 per cent of the com­pany’s spend­ing goes to­wards in­gre­di­ents and for­mu­las, whereas the in­dus­try norm could be as low as 10 per cent. It also puts im­mense ef­fort into up­hold­ing its iden­tity – no two stores look alike, yet all ex­ude the same tem­pleof-calm vibe and are qui­etly stun­ning in a way that can only be de­scribed as Ae­sopian.

Rather than an­nounce its pres­ence, the brand waits to be dis­cov­ered by those who em­brace the sim­plic­ity, fi­nesse and lifestyle it es­pouses. “I don’t think we’re here to change peo­ple’s views of life. Rather, we’re here for those who al­ready have a line of think­ing about what they want or don’t want in their world,” she says.

This low-key ap­proach can, how­ever, mean that Aesop doesn’t ac­tively shout about its strengths. Though lit­tle more needs to be said about the di­vine scents and luxe tex­tures of its body care, its skin­care doesn’t al­ways get

“I would say there are a few touches that I’ve had a part in, but there are many other hands in this com­pany. Many peo­ple have given enor­mously and their voices are much greater.”

the same credit, with some users un­con­vinced of the brand’s know-how in that de­part­ment.

“We ac­tu­ally sell a heck of a lot of skin­care,” coun­ters San­tos. “It may be that a lot of peo­ple be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with us through our body care. But I think more are buy­ing us as a skin­care com­pany.”

She adds: “I’m sit­ting here in a com­pany that’s 31 years old and grow­ing. That, for me, is al­ready a con­vinc­ing po­si­tion that we have and will con­tinue to suc­ceed as a skin­care com­pany. The com­pany is not set up to con­vince peo­ple in ways other than through use. We’re not here to be­rate oth­ers for what they are or aren’t do­ing, or force­fully use our voice to beckon peo­ple through our door. We ac­tu­ally, in many ways, just wait for peo­ple to walk into our stores.”

In a nod to Sin­ga­pore’s old cof­fee shops and HDB flats, Aesop Vivoc­ity has unglazed floor tiles, and wo­ven rat­tan on its shelves and sink counter. Ref­er­enc­ing Or­chard Road’s nut­meg-plan­ta­tion ori­gins, Aesop Ion re­sem­bles an up­side-down for­est with pink walls that re­call the spice mace. In­spired by tra­di­tional Per­anakan court­yards, Aesop Ngee Ann City has salmon-hued ter­razzo floor­ing, pop­u­lar for its cool­ing ef­fect, and tar­nished­cop­per shelv­ing.

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