uzanne Santos is not someone you would describe as passive. She may cast a tranquil air, a hushed eloquence, but her conversation arrives with astute consideration in tow. The Product Advocate and permanent fixture alongside Aesop founder and Creative Director, Dennis Paphitis, Santos’s way seems an apt analogy for the company she joined at its cradle 25 years ago.
She is gentle in tone but fiercely articulate; she is meticulously kempt but discreetly so; she asks as many questions of her interviewer as she answers. It soon becomes clear that this isn’t so much an exchange about a brand, but a conversation with philosophical underpinnings. Notions of product and design are enveloped in deliberations on culture, business and life more widely.
“I think we’re loud within the walls of this building, but we’re very quiet outside of it,” she offers, pausing for a moment. “We don’t do things superficially.”
It would seem a straightforward enough assertion, but it’s one that speaks to the very heart of Aesop’s vision. A company that has long shied away from advertising and “the vulgarities of what retail can embody”, Aesop has built its name on rigorous ingredient and product research and attention to detail. It has fostered a design sensibility and experience that doesn’t so much sell their largely plant-based products, but articulates them. The now instantly recognisable brown glass pharmaceutical bottles – used for their light-blocking rather than anti-fashion qualities, the company have long claimed – and unadorned cream labels with black text, offer explanations of their largely plant-based ingredients with little in the way of flourish aside from their signature use of inspiring quotes.
Each of their signature stores – now numbering 44 across Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States – are unique in architectural, material and textural quality. Most are quietly spectacular, both in surface and armature. They share a sensibility rather than an aesthetic.
“The volume of detail that goes into each store is not for us,” Santos muses. “The amount of detail goes into the lining of draws…the building, the boxes, the lighting, the music, the aromas, the façade – what invites you to cross that threshold – all of those elements are considered, not for the sake of it. It isn’t some tool to build business. It comes from a genuine desire to create an environment that is of worth.”
One could take such a statement with a grain of salt in most contexts. But it’s hard to argue that Aesop’s retail spaces are a mere interface or glorified point of sale. Like their investment into ingredient research and formulation (Paphitis once stated in an interview that the company spends around 80 per cent of their product outlay on ingredient and formulation costs, where the cosmetic industry standard is often as low as 10 per cent), each of their architecturally unique stores ties into a less definable company missive. If Aesop were looking for a cheap and easy way to hock product, this most certainly wouldn’t be it
“By our very definition, we constantly challenge the customer,” says Santos. “I don’t think there’s any other cosmetic company in the world that challenges the customer in the way that we do.
“Do we have businesses practices and do the values around Aesop invite question? Yes, constantly. Not for the sake of it but because we are moving on. The thing about this company is that we are always moving,” she continues. “The stores, the visual merchandising, are key to the brand, but that is only one impression of the transition… We don’t tie you down as a customer. I think it’s challenging, in an exhilarating way.”
We’re stationed at a large trestle table in light-filled, second-floor meeting room, gazing across Smith Street to a cobble of Collingwood rooftops to the east. Positioned in an otherwise unremarkable brick building in Fitzroy, Aesop’s Melbourne headquarters (or as Santos eloquently puts it, “parent base”) shares a similarly considered dynamic. Furnishings are kept to a minimum; warm timbers and ply punctuates an otherwise cool, white-walled space. Neatly arranged rows of those trademark brown glass pharmaceutical bottles gather on benches or ledges here and there.
An assistant gives me the tour on arrival. The twist of hanging naked bulbs at reception leads past the bright, white in-house lab and onto a spacious common area marked with minimalist timber benches and a kitchen area where staff periodically cook meals for their workmates. The staircase, with its vivid crimson walls, is the only real flash of colour as we wander upstairs to survey the open-plan office, impeccably neat workstations and industriously hushed staff separated neat, timber partitions. It’s all very Aesop and as Santos – who as the company’s Product Advocate spends much of her time travelling internationally and communicating the brand’s message – points out, it’s little wonder. All but everything, from lab work, chemistry and formulations to brand development, design and marketing – is done in house. It’s what makes Aesop what it is.
“We behave in a prescriptive way,” says Santos resolutely. “We don’t spent money in careless manner, we focus very sincerely on what is inside that container and the elements that surround that. Everything is done with a great deal of detail from in-house.
“I draw upon the term ‘traditional’ in the sense that everything is done from within. We don’t seek others outside… From a company perspective, everything is here. The lab is here and every element that touches the product is always created from within here.”
Though Aesop has grown to become a well and truly global player, with over 100 scrupulously selected points of sale complimenting their 44 eponymous stores, it is steered well and truly from the few within. And for Santos, it is the “different freedom” such a company structure allows that sets them apart. “This company attracts and is led by extraordinary people who, across the world, have come from remarkable companies to end up here,” she urges. “They’re here, I think, because they’re inspired by the difference as much as anything else, by the success of the model.
“I think from the very beginning, it has always been very insular in a sense,” continues Santos. “We don’t look into the camps of anybody else who sells in the name of cosmetics.”
Most are familiar with the Aesop story by now. The son of St Albans barber, Paphitis studied hairdressing under the tutelage of a demanding French master in the late 70s, spending the early 80s travelling between Paris, Italy and Melbourne before opening his own pocket-sized salon, Emeis, in Armadale. Working by referral only, the one-person show would expand to two when he met a young Santos, who would become his assistant.
In 1987, Paphitis decided to start his own hair and skin-care product line. But with a difference. Where luxury products and treatments of the time more often than not necessitated bleach and bling, Phaphitis’s approach couldn’t have been further removed. His want for ethically produced, plant-based products took him to southern California, where he found an appropriate lab and maker for his initial line. Aesop was born. Soon enough, David Jones came onboard as one of the brand’s first major stockists and the rise began.
Santos is typically philosophical about the time, describing her long-term director and collaborator as a person of “great enquiry”. “It was very clear that the cosmetic industry needed questions to be asked of it and that there was the potential for a new direction to take charge,” she says. “Beginning with the formulations, beginning from the inside-out therefore.
“At that point, there were new ingredients that could be brought to the forefront and there were many formulations that maybe hadn’t had enough questions posed of them.”
She links Aesop’s emergence to a wider movement surrounding organic foods and slower lifestyle choices. “It was at that moment that questioning had really begun around the food that we were eating, the life that we were living,” she says. “There was a much greater thing happening than just these questions about cosmetics.
“Dennis is a person of great curiosity and he was observant of that moment, living in that moment, and he asked the question of hair care. How could it be improved? What really needed to remain and what had no relevance?”
What separated Aesop from others, however, was there acknowledgement of contemporary science and scientific methodology. Indeed, they’ve long distanced themselves from the naturals industry, using a “combination of manmade ingredients and botanical ingredients”.
“We’re not shy to the fact that, from our perspective, you need manmade ingredients to help make great cosmetics. It would be foolish to ignore some of the wonderful ingredients that have emerged, certainly in the last 25 years.”
Santos herself is somewhat indicative of the wider Aesop story. She grew up in western Victoria, going onto study Biology and Arts at a university level, only to leave both degrees unfinished. She found work in various places before gaining a position with a welfare organisation offering assistance to disadvantaged youth. Since joining Paphitis in 1987, she has essentially become an autodidactic, working countless senior positions and fulfilling roles implementing ethical, quality and integrity measures, training and mentoring company representatives and becoming a public face and mouthpiece for Aesop as it has expanded throughout the world.
All that said, Santos is more than happy to acknowledge that she and the core Aesop team haven’t done it on their own. While their “traditional” model is certainly governed from within, architectural and cultural collaborations have been key to developing Aesop’s particular inflection. “We’re very removed from popular culture,” she says. “We in fact shield ourselves from other people’s ideas. Collaboration is different. Collaborators are those we seek, out of respect, to collaborate for the purposes of a joint expression.”
While they’ve worked with leading architectural firms such as CheungVogl, Cigue, March Studio and Tacklebox to create striking interiors for key stores Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York, they’ve also teamed up with leading brands such as A.P.C. and French Architectural Digest to create collaborative products and commissioned artists such Melbourne-based Damon Kowarsky and Kyoki Imazu, not to mention Lucy McRae, to create installations and video works.
“This is an enriching environment,” offers Santos. “The life we live is very attentive to both historical and contemporary figures, over a whole spectrum of life, whether it’s science, whether it’s literature or wine or food or architecture. Regardless of the discipline, there is a genuine respect for a whole range of individuals. They form an environment from which we can learn and bring that into Aesop.”
A quarter of a century into the journey, she is more proud than ever to be involved in the company that has – at least somewhat – come to define her. “My life is immersed in Aesop and I don’t ever take for granted the quality of what we do,” she pauses. “We could have made many different decisions as a company and followed many suggested opportunities and had a very different product inside the jar, but we have never strayed from the idea that there needs to be a purpose for the product, that then the formulation is made to the highest quality… There are very few companies in the world that are still able to operate in that way.”
“To stand in a store – it could be in North Melbourne, it could be in New York, it could be in Zurich – and to watch people walk in the door and imagine how we began…encourages you to realise that people want what we do.”
“We are nothing without our customers and we do not take that lightly.”
Perhaps most refreshingly, there is perspective. There is the gentle wave of the hand and the humble adjunct. “At the end of the day, we’re making cosmetics; we’re not changing the world,” she says. “There are thousands of people who change the world on a daily basis, and no one knows their names.”