Interviewing the founder of a grooming brand, now that’s something I would have never thought I would do. But when I first encountered Aesop, it made me do something I expected no face cream manufacturer ever would – it made me think. It was some years ago, when I stumbled upon its Marais boutique in Paris. The tiny store’s earthiness combined with the richness of its textures drew me in. It was like nothing else, with every detail carefully considered. And then of course there were the products, their deceptively simple packaging and their scents that had just the right balance of allure and understatement, like a perfectly executed minimalist painting. There were also the relatively hefty price tags that made you sigh and be secretly happy for those hand lotion sample bottles attached to the shop’s front door; you felt slightly guilty for using them, but you did anyway (don’t judge, I know you’ve done the same).
Gradually, I began to see Aesop stores multiply like mushrooms all over the globe. Any city I traveled to, any noteworthy neighborhood I visited, there was an Aesop shop. Each one looked different and was imbued with a sense of meticulous attention and care. I liked that Aesop did not use cookie-cutter blueprint in order to cut costs, the practice that is turning contemporary cities into a dispiriting, homogenous mess of bland storefronts. Instead, the company engaged different designers and architects, and not your average starchitects that get you into the Architectural Digest, but what in fashion we call designers’ designers – Vincent Van Duysen, Vincenzo De Cotiis, Studio Ko, and JamesPlumb, among others. “Our experience working with Aesop was that when a brief is phenomenally clear and concise, and at the same time allows so much room for freedom of expression, we as a studio were really able to explore our most experimental and exciting ideas,” said Hannah Plumb of JamesPlumb, the design duo that recently completed the latest Aesop’s London outpost, with water as the overarching theme. “For a global brand to not blink twice at having water flowing through its shelves shows that clarity feeds creativity, and that bold ideas can marry with rigorously practical needs.”
Lamb’s Conduit Store in London by JamesPlumb
Since then the cult of Aesop has grown immensely. And let’s face it, for a grooming brand to become an aesthetic cult is quite an achievement. I have used Aesop at Rick Owens’s house and his Paris showroom, at the Boris Bidjan Saberi store in New York, and at Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurants in London, and that list can go on for a long time. And the fact that an Aesop bottle is now an indispensable artifact of any lame bathroom ad has not turned me (and all of the above) off is a testament in itself that quality has the capacity to resist banalization through overuse.
Most grooming products I have used or sampled fall into the category of “this smells nice,” meaning that I have never been stopped in my tracks by a hand soap, the way I have by say an intricately constructed coat. That is until the first time I washed my hands with Aesop’s hand soap that contained finely milled Pumice stone. It wasn’t just that it smelt and felt good, the little grinds providing a smooth tactile sensation, but for the first time I found myself EXPERIENCING the process of washing hands, instead of doing it as a chore, while being elsewhere in my head. If all of this sounds like a dumb grooming ad, indulge me, and in return I will spare you philosophical insights about being in the moment and such. The one thought I kept returning to while having repeated encounters with the brand was that here was a product of careful consideration and care, and that whoever created this must think outside the usual parameters of running a business.
That someone is Dennis Paphitis, the Australian-born son of Greek immigrants, who opened a hair salon in Melbourne in 1987, for which the first Aesop products were created. Like many other successful creators, his desire to propose something to the world came from dissatisfaction of what was available at the time. “In terms of grooming products available in 1987, the offer was at least as ugly as it is today, perhaps with a little less choice,” Paphitis told me in an email interview. “Brands and products were and are still largely formulated by culturally bereft, commercially obsessed, consensus-driven committees of ‘experts.’”
“Culturally bereft” is the key phrase here and is typical for Paphitis, who tends to think in terms of larger cultural context. That’s why Aesop is named after the famous Greek fabulist, why its website is peppered with quotes (our interview begins with one from a Spanish philosopher you will rarely encounter outside of an MA program), why it considers the likes of the Paris Review of Books and the DIA its partners, and why it has a separate website dedicated to Aesop’s philosophy of store building. All of this might sound incredibly pretentious if only the proof wasn’t in the proverbial pudding.
“Life is a series of collisions with the future; it is not the sum of what we have been, but what we yearn to be.” Jose Ortega y Gasset
Eugene Rabkin: How did the idea of creating Aesop come about? What did you see lacking in an already crowded field of personal grooming?
Dennis Paphitis: In terms of grooming products available in 1987, the offer was at least as ugly as it is today, perhaps with a little less choice. Brands and products were and are still largely formulated by culturally bereft, commercially obsessed, consensus-driven committees of ‘experts’. It’s astonishing to me that such an approach can be considered sustainable and worthy of human satisfaction. Aesop has always taken the view that a well-considered and properly engineered product must have some global resonance and stand the test of time. We found our voice by operating outside the system; our interest has always been around ‘less and much better’. The energy is directed inside the containers rather than wasting time on packaging and decoration, our aesthetic codes were born out of functional requirements and not through an outsourced branding agency commissioned to construct a brand personality. For us what we do feels completely normal, there’s no other way we’d prefer to operate.
ER: How did you find global success? The brand has existed since 1987, but has undergone a rapid expansion in the past ten years or so.
DP: I’m not sure what success means, we felt happy when we opened our first store in 2003, and we will feel happy when we open our 200th later this year. Not much has changed regarding the company spirit and healthy self-doubt; maybe we stress a little less some days but in the end, we’re only as good as our last jar of face cream. Our visibility has certainly increased since 1987; we now have stores and offices in 17 regions across the world, but we have a long way to go and not every one of our gestures is as elegant as they will be. There’s always room to sharpen our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Aesop has smart and stable people with impressive tenure and robust resilience. Longevity matters, it’s not possible to do things our way unless it’s all absorbed from the ground up, it’s a complete and interconnected ecosystem that takes years to grasp and metabolize. Nothing great happens overnight; I’m so bored by the notion of instant gratification.
ER: Aesop is a meticulously thought-out brand, one that is truly designed from top to bottom. By “true design” I mean that with Aesop one does not feel that there is an aesthetic veneer over a subpar core, but that its every aspect is considered. Could you describe how you approach design and what it means to you?
DP: Design for us means a rounded, holistic and integrated thinking. We are ‘thinkers’ rather than brand makers or marketers. What we try and do is to configure solutions through our products and behind these a cohesive backdrop through our stores and websites. The ‘selling’ largely happens by itself when all these factors dance together as they should. Customers are smart; they can ‘smell’ truth and sincerity in a product, they can feel and touch conviction by the way a company behaves and conducts itself. Every tone, texture and lightning variable in our spaces is considered and constantly calibrated. Design is the blood of Aesop; it’s a non-negotiable part of what we do. Design is ultimately a process of superfluous elimination, its complete when there’s nothing left to remove, reducing the unnecessary and arriving at a solution that is sensual and seductive. It’s an act of love rather than speed and hysterical attempts to please everybody.
ER: Can you give more insight into Aesop’s product development?
DP: We’ve worked tirelessly for 30 years to source and configure formulations that are original, effective and provocative. We do not violate, reference or plagiarize other brands; everything we do and think is inside us. Our product development process is intense, laborious and expensive though that explains why we have 28-year-old products that remain desirable and continue to attract customers. Our senses and neurons, wired as they are, respond to certain primal codes. When design is truly considered from a user-centric perspective, many of the development obstacles and poor assumptions start to fall away. Customers are already spoilt for choice; the world does not need another ‘age-defying peptide’ piece of rubbish. We strive to be the delightful and dependable ‘constant’ in your bathroom, to deliver a product of great utility that extends joy, efficacy and assurance.
We never rush a product to market. The company projects forward on a rolling five year basis for NPD (new product development); there are clear and aligned thoughts around what the existing gaps and needs are. For example, later this year we will launch the first toothpaste and our third fragrance; these particular categories are carefully scrutinized across all our markets before any technical work even begins.
ER: I guess what I am trying to get at is that Aesop is a brand where you approach everything with care.
DP: In a world where so much is careless, care matters a great deal. I don’t know or understand any other way of being or working, and I am disturbed by the prospect of lazy shortcuts. Trying to get things right the first time round and improving with each iteration is no big deal, this becomes second nature and a systemic way of working and thinking. It’s also a question of personal satisfaction and fulfillment; we find joy in great work.
ER: You mine other aspects of culture for inspiration, especially literature. How does culture influences you?
DP: Our relationship with the arts has been integral to the development of Aesop; it has fueled and inspired us at every level. We’ve always found richer inspiration in the way a brilliant writer works and thinks than in the theories of the sharpest management consultant. Culture at Aesop is a verb; we need to see and drink it in as active fuel and sustenance. For 30 years when I’ve needed to resolve or re-think an issue, it was not the HBR [Harvard Business Review, editor’s note] I reached for; more often than not reading a Paris Review article or interview cleared my head sufficiently and the answers would eventually present themselves.
ER: You seem passionate about sharing cultural knowledge with other people. Your website features quotes from writers and artists, a blog with a literary bent, and even city guides
DP: Aesop’s Creative Director, Marsha Meredith has an exquisite sensitivity and sensibility. The ongoing body of work generated by her creative and literary team each month is overwhelming. Of particular pride is the digital publication “The Fabulist’ and our “Taxonomy of Design” architectural films.
ER: You have also developed relationships with the cultural institutions like the DIA, The Met, and the Paris Review.
DP:The friendship that we enjoy with a small number of cultural institutions has always been an important contribution to our internal inspiration. There are so many ways to communicate with customers and for Aesop it simply feels richer and more relevant to align with and support the arts and artists themselves. DIA have a phenomenal program that is has always been ahead of its game, the Paris Review is still very much the reference point for discovering and celebrating new literary voices, The Met began a terrific new architectural program last year which we became involved with.
ER: People are often skeptical about for-profit companies espousing social values like environmentalism, community, and cultural connection. Often, they are seen as appropriations. How do you navigate that at Aesop?
DP: There is far too much corporate banter around values and purpose, great companies ‘do’ more than they ‘say’ and they simply ‘get on with it’. It’s not so difficult to encode small, incremental and constructive gestures that reduce waste (in every sense) and increase positive solutions and social contribution. Behaving in a socially and environmentally responsible way is not a virtue, it ought to be a base commercial obligation.
ER: One of the aspects that make Aesop stands out is the design of your shops. What is the thinking behind store design and the selection process for architects?
DP: When we began it wasn’t a conscious strategy; the architecture was for ourselves, our own well-being and an extension of how we operated at the back-end. We’ve since understood that great design is universal, it resonates and makes people feel well, the emotion and sincerity of a space can signal warmth, humor, an invitation to connect. Design wise, we work best with either young, prodigious talents that can be guided and nurtured or very established offices who enjoy the challenge we provide despite our modest store sizes and budgets. It’s important to work with dynamic people at their peak professional moment, those who enjoy collaboration and are committed to stretching their thinking and ours. Our interest in architecture is sincere; we are aware of who is doing what and we track this progress, inviting them to join when the time is right for both groups. In addition, our in-house store design team consists of 17 talents in total; we have some exceptional people in this group in our Paris, New York, and Melbourne offices. Each exchange has been an experience, there’s always a little pain, yet some of the results have been exceptional.
ER: We live in the world where quality is now synonymous with luxury, and cheap crap is the new normal. Do you think we live in an age of lowered standards? Is it possible to change this perception?
DP: The word ‘luxury’ has been tragically corporatized in the last decade, the greatest luxury in our lives is health and clean water, and certainly not branded luggage. Fast, cheap and dispensable supports a large quantum of mindless consumption that ultimately becomes disposable landfill. Less, better, smarter is how we prefer to do it. A few great staples, that’s all most of us need rather than a bounty of excess choices. By industry standards, Aesop remains competitive and remarkable value for what is actually delivered. We have retained all production in Australia and to a smaller degree, France. Quality and fastidious production control matters enormously to us, and we bear a premium for this.
ER: At some point you sold Aesop to a large conglomerate, Natura. Was this a hard decision? Were you afraid that Aesop’s ethos will be diluted?
DP: Not so hard. I was ready; Aesop was never about the ‘owning’ for me and much more about the actual working process and related learning. 30 years is a huge chunk of life energy, it was time to reclaim my own day-to-day space and some critical distance from a very intense working life. Natura have been delightful to deal with; they are emotive, romantic and committed, and there’s respect and healthy comradeship between us.
ER: Are you still involved in the company? What are your current pursuits?
DP: I continue to cooperate with the company on an advisory basis in areas relating to the ethos, spirit and movement of Aesop. I also sit on the board as an advisor where the practical and conceptual elements of the business are scrutinized on a quarterly basis. Outside of Aesop, I’m taking some time to learn, think and travel as well as advise a number of promising start-ups.