Aesop’s road to Rome
How an Australian hairdresser built an empire out of soap and shampoo
Inside a small store in Rome’s Piazza di San Lorenzo in Lucina, a woman called Suzanne is holding my left hand and gently washing it in a bronze sink. Looking on is the film director Luca Guadagnino. He is wearing a slouchy green cardigan; a Prada backpack sits at his feet. Light pours over us through a large window, highlighting the intricate rhomboidal-patterned travertine floor, inspired by a nearby church. “There is a special reverence for the sink in every Aesop space,” says Suzanne. It is a lovely sink.
Suzanne Santos is Aesop’s chief customer officer, and I am in Rome to visit the Australian skincare brand’s first store in the eternal city, the interiors of which have been overseen by Guadagnino — director of Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria — and his recently established design firm, Studio Luca Guadagnino.
“Like the church, this is a place for peace and quiet reflection,” Santos says. “Once that door is opened and once you’re inside there, it’s just us. It’s like a bubble, a metaphorical bubble. Outside sound is reduced and the lighting always comforts you. That’s very precious and
if we’re at our best, you should walk out with such a good sense of self.”
Short-haired, radiant, serene and a bit scary, Santos readily deploys the term “Aesopian” to describe employees. She is the brand’s primary and most passionate envoy, training both staff and customers in the Aesop way. “I can’t veer away from the complete sense of sincerity we feel towards the product,” she says. “How much it means to be able to stand in the space and offer it to a person with an utter sense of its worth. A sense of the contribution it would make to their lives.”
It is not unusual for skincare brands to adopt marketing messaging that sits somewhere between “we will keep you clean” and “we will cleanse your soul”, but Aesop — pronounced “Ee-sop”, and if you opt for “Ay-sop” in front of an employee you’ll be met with a miniscule crinkling of the eyes and tightening of the smile — makes especially bold claims for its place in its customers’ lives. And it appears to receive a special kind of adoration in return.
If you’ve encountered the brand before, you may associate it with a certain kind of cool, modern, vetiver-scented aspiration, with its amber bottles, its Helvetica typeface and its gently witty messaging. But Aesop insists there is more to it than that. The brand is named after the famous fabulist who wandered ancient Greece telling tales, each built round a simple moral lesson. “There is,” the brand declares, “little morality in the world of commerce, so it seems fitting that we should anchor our thoughts and actions to something of merit.”
Whether it’s the morality, or the marketing, or the product, or a combination of all three, something is working: Aesop is now a global grooming superpower with 200 standalone stores, and more in the works, and revenue that totals more than $270m (£203.5m).
According to marketing strategist Sheri L Koetting, the key to Aesop’s success is consistency. “The brand presents an airtight, unified front, leaving little room for misunderstanding,” says Koetting, co-founder of MSLK, which advises Chanel, Aveda and Maybelline among others. “Such straightforward presentation of information is particularly attractive in today’s overcrowded market, where hundreds of brands vie for attention. Everyone needs a break today and often less is more.”
Even if you’ve never massaged Aesop’s parsley seed anti-oxidant serum (£49) into your face, washed your body with its geranium leaf body cleanser, featuring mandarin and bergamot rind (£31), or soothed your skin with its Moroccan neroli post-shaving lotion (£35), it’s likely you have come into contact with its hand wash.
Ah, the hand wash. While researching this article, I lost count of how many people professed their love of it. Its full name is Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash (£27/500ml), a “gentle formulation containing oils of orange, rosemary and lavender” with a “citrus, woody, herbaceous” aroma. It is as much a subtle bathroom trophy, a nod to good taste, as it is an effective and pleasant-smelling handwash. If you’ve enjoyed gnudi with roasted onion squash at Spring, Skye Gyngell’s restaurant in London’s Somerset House, or stayed at any Edition hotel, you’ve likely used Resurrection in the bathrooms. Restaurants and hotels must apply to the brand if they wish to stock it — and you’ll often find it locked to sinks, such is its cult status.
“The hand wash!” Kate Forbes, Aesop’s general manager of products, research and development, says with a smile that suggests she’s covered this ground before. “We started noticing in Melbourne that if someone has their home on the market they’ll put some Aesop hand wash and other products in there to show prospective buyers,” she says. “Hand washing is such an everyday thing, but people can now consider it a bit more and we hope we’ve made that process slightly more pleasurable.”
Two weeks later, I receive an email asking that I “avoid talking about the hand wash and focus more on Aesop as a skincare brand, as products take between two and 10 years to formulate.”
That hand wash, though. It is really nice.
Aesop was an idea born, so the story goes, from necessity. In 1987, Dennis Paphitis, an Australian hairdresser of Greek-Cypriot descent, found that by keeping his Melbourne salon “visually ordered and contained” he was better able to deal with the high expectations of his more demanding clients. He wanted to create a refuge, somewhere calm and reassuring.
Paphitis began experimenting with products he was using too, adding sage, rosemary and other natural oils to hair dye to alleviate the overbearing smell of ammonia found in commercial offerings. The positive customer
response encouraged Paphitis to begin working with a chemist on a broader selection of hair products, which led to a range of skincare and, eventually, to Paphitis stepping away from the salon in 1996 and focusing his energies entirely on his burgeoning cosmetics brand.
The first store opened in Melbourne’s cosmopolitan St Kilda neighbourhood in 2004, and there are now shops in 23 countries, no two of which look identical. Aesop uses a mixture of in-house and independent architects to create environments that, says its CEO Michael O’Keefe, “add value” to a neighbourhood. “We tend to look where creatives live, designers, writers and architects. Places like Shoreditch, Le Marais and the Lower East Side appeal to us,” he adds. (Cracking Brazil, apparently, has been a “challenge.”)
In its NoLIta store in New York, the walls and shelf space are covered in 400,000 strips of pages from The New York Times. Its first London space, in Mayfair (now closed) was overseen by British designer Ilse Crawford and featured original parquet floors, antique furniture and restored fireplaces. In Le Marais, 427 polished steel dishes hold products inside a white concrete, light-filled room that opens out onto a courtyard filled with greenery
For the design of the Rome store, Guadagnino and Aesop’s European general manager Thomas Buisson, an ebullient Frenchman with a particularly elegant way of pronouncing the brand name (“Ee-sup”), walked the streets of Rome in search of inspiration. Their mood board featured religious motifs, the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini and a video clip of GreekAmerican soprano Maria Callas storming out of a 1958 performance in Rome that Paphitis was particularly taken by. The result, according to O’Keefe, is a “beautiful shoebox” full of marble, bronze and a handmade Murano glass light that hangs from a ceiling covered in straw.
“You go into Starbucks or McDonald’s and everyone knows instantly where they are and what they’re getting,” says Buisson. “For us, every project is a blank page.”
Inside Aesop’s stores and offices, the specifications are no less considered. Staff are forbidden from talking about the weather (“Customers do not benefit from benign and obvious commentary,” Paphitis once told The Sydney Morning Herald). There is approved toilet paper in every bathroom and the finance department has specific colours allowed for its graphs. Only black ballpoint pens are used in its offices. Zadie Smith has written for its literary publication The Fabulist and it has partnered with The Paris Review. On Aesop’s website you will find quotes by Saint Francis de Sales and George Bernard Shaw. Oh, there are products on there too, lined up in neat amber formation on pleasing ecru backgrounds. Ingredients are written in English and in French, using Helvetica and Optima fonts.
“It is an incredibly genuine brand,” says Emily Bell, beauty buyer at Liberty London, one of the few department stores permitted to stock Aesop. “Each item is a response to its customers’ needs, it doesn’t churn out new products for the sake of it. There is certainly a ‘status’ appeal due to its overall aesthetic, but the longevity of the brand comes from the quality of the products.”
The hand wash, as well as the Post-Poo Drops (exactly what you think they might be) are both top sellers.
On a bright morning, I sit with Suzanne Santos on a small wicker bench placed against a wall at the back of the Rome shop, the “beautiful shoebox”.
“There’s a need for kinship among our staff,” she says, as Aesop workers in black T-shirts, stone blue aprons and black trousers buzz around us. “It’s not a cult, it’s not one kind of mould. There are lots of kinds of shapes. We share our meals together, we share a life together. If you’re not comfortable with that kind of intimacy, then it would be hard to work for Aesop.”
Santos has been with the company since day one, introduced to Paphitis through a mutual friend who knew he was looking for an assistant and that she was looking for an “uncomplicated” job. That was 32 years ago.
“I recognised early on with Dennis that I was with someone who was truly unusual in a world where there are very few unusual people,” she says. “Many people would like to think that they’re unique, but in a lifetime, you are very fortunate if you meet someone like Dennis.”
In December 2012, Dennis Paphitis sold a 65 per cent stake of Aesop to the Brazilian beauty conglomerate Natura & Co for a reported $71m (£55m); it took full ownership of the company in 2016. Paphitis remains an advisor to the board and management, and is involved in special projects, including Rome, which came about after he slipped Guadagnino a note of admiration while they were both staying at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, before he knew the director was dabbling in design and architecture. It was a “beautiful note”, says Guadagnino.
The Villa Medici on the outskirts of Rome smells like vetiver and petitgrain. The scent rises up through the Mannerist-era stonework and lingers in the banquet hall, which features two enormous
‘You go into Starbucks or McDonald’s and everyone knows instantly where they are and what they’re getting,’ says Aesop’s European general
manager Thomas Buisson. ‘For us, every project is a blank page’
tables and floor-to-ceiling tapestries of elephants, herons and cherubs. Red wine from Aesop’s Australian vineyard is served to the 100-or-so guests, here from all over the world to celebrate the brand’s latest opening. (Sometimes Aesop makes limited-run olive oil, too.) The rapt audience listens while a middle-aged man with thick, dark hair, wearing a navy suit and open-collared white shirt, reads in earnestly broken Italian from a sheet of paper, paying homage to the many successes of the brand he founded. The head of Studio Luca Guadagnino looks on, smiling.
“There’s an Aboriginal saying,” says Paphitis in his easy Melbourne drawl. “‘We must touch the rock lightly.’ I sometimes think we touch the rock too lightly, but then again, the artistry of Aesop doesn’t work without respect. It’s been an incredible journey.”
“Are you getting this?” Santos, sitting next to me, whispers during a lull. I am, but I’m also thinking about the Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash in the villa’s luxurious bathroom and trying to remember whether or not it was chained to the sink.