Sunscreen that quotes literature, Aesop is beauty with brains. Meet its founder Dennis Paphitis.
Sub-standard shampoo, unenlightened soap, drab deodorant—for many, most of the time, performing daily ablutions is spent in poor company. Founded in 1987 by the brilliant Australian-Greek concoction Dennis Paphitis, Aesop is a full-body beauty brand on a mission to elevate everyday objects and rituals to luxurious heights. Son of a Greek barber, Paphitis' affinity and appreciation for fine food, grooming and wellbeing—the tenets of an old-world Mediterranean lifestyle—was honed at a very young age. That, coupled with a fastidious passion for botanical ingredients in the pursuit of exceptional skincare, set him on track to reinvent the industry, one precious product at a time
Packaged in UV-protected, dark-brown apothecary jars with subdued black and white labels that cite inspiring, oft-hilarious prose, Aesop products have become understated icons of exceptional, intelligent beauty. Each formula is a synergized blend of botanical extracts and engineered synthetics painstakingly designed to target real-life, everyday needs.
Like their unconventional, practical think-piece products, Aesop's retail environments are equally offbeat. Blending product with contemporary art or retro furniture, every boutique is "like a charm on an aging rose-gold bracelet worn by a polished women, with each charm representing a different mood or a different city that's she's experienced," explains Paphitis. With 11 shops in Asia and Australia already under his belt, Paphitis tackles Paris this fall with Aesop's first free-standing European outpost. We caught up with the globetrotting beauty pioneer on his swing through the city.
What is your definition of luxury?
Invisible details, seamless service, enduring materials.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
Sundays with a good breakfast in Melbourne, then reading the papers and chilling out for a day at home.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
John Updike's brain, Isabella Adjani's face, Arman Hadida of l'Eclaireur's taste and Monica Belucci's body.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
Arne Jacobsen's Tear Drop chair. I think there were only 30 of them made for the SAS hotel. They're very beautiful and I'd really like to have one.
If luxury were a place where would it be?
The northeast coast of Bali in terms of vegetation, the water palaces and food.
When building your brand, were there any figures in beauty that helped shaped your vision?
The criterion at Aesop is that we only ever look outside of industry. So we look at food, travel, hotels, literature, theater—we look everywhere. I'm likely to be influenced by Le Corbusier and the great guy that he worked with, Iannis Xenakis, who composed a musical score and applied the beats to the intervals of the grill of the monastery La Tourette, in France. I'm interested in mathematical formulas and Fibonacci, naturally occurring sequencing and patterns in nature and how this can impact a product. I think that the ideal product is a little like an exceptional painting with a harmonic rectangle; there's something that anchors the whole thing together.
In your opinion, what kind of customer is attracted to Aesop?
Our customer is almost an anti-beauty customer. She's not a customer that buys into the idea of 25 products on your face a day, but someone that forms a deeper attachment to the crazy details that we do and who understand that these elements begin with the fastidious and committed sourcing of ingredients right through to the delivery of the product. Lifestyle, natural and organic are words that can be so readily misinterpreted, but what the customer buys into is more the subliminal personality of the company.
How are new ideas for products generated at Aesop?
I think it evolves out of an interpretation of what is required in a given territory at a given moment. We think that people right now, largely through movements like Slow Food, are beginning to appreciate traditional artisan methods of food production and things that are touched by hands. My personal feeling is that on a textural level, products will become richer, and thicker.
Do you have an ideal Aesop product universe already mapped out?
I think luxury is the about the elevation of everyday objects and rituals. Not like the guest appearance of a very special bath gel at Christmas when the rest of the year you use a crappy soap. When developing a product, that's always the starting point. Rather than trying to create new or imaginary needs, we try to make daily rituals more enjoyable. The idea that you can use something special to begin your day is imperative.
What are your 5 favorite products?
Fabulous Face Cleanser, an olive-based non-foaming cleanser that's just a great year-round cleanser for every type of skin. Parsley Seed Antioxidant Toner, a conditioning toner for the skin rather than astringent. Morocco Neroli Shaving Serum, a nice thick liquid which is primarily for men to shave with but we hear that women use it for their legs too. Parsley Antioxidant Eye Cream, which I think is our most luxurious, decadent cream, it's a really comfortable barrier for the skin that's doesn't feel greasy. Marrakech, our first eau de toilette. It's not a your typical fragrance, it's quite rich, pungent and spicy.
In your company bio, you include a pie graph of your daily distractions. What are your pastimes and passions, etc?
My pastime is just celebrating and savoring precious free time. I don't need to have ten cups of coffee a day, but one very enjoyable cup. Whatever city we're traveling in, I'm always sure to find the best source of coffee and the same goes for wine. I'm also drawn to people who do things passionately, who are committed to their passions and don't succumb to distractions, whether it be making the best crepe or editing a newspaper.
You also show artwork within your shops. Whose work are you currently promoting?
A lot of our merchandising is like quasi-installations but we would like to start exhibiting some more art. We bought a film from a Boston-based filmmaker named Robert Arnold called Morphology of Desire. It's an animated film of 1950s advertising posters of couples kissing. Though it has no relevance to a particular product, we think it's important because it stops you and clears out your mind.
You compare your botanical blends to wines. Do you envisage coming out with vintage beauty crus?
We already have. There's a body cream called Relax that has a 2004 cru. There are people who really collect it while others are just confused as to why it's still there!
What's the link between Aesop's topical and edible products?
The idea is to take ingredients that we use that are edible and present them in another context to communicate something more. We've done a wine for the last couple of years. The last one was a Shiraz. It's based on the polyphenol contents of red grapes and the idea that antioxidants ingested are good for you and good for your skin. This year we're doing an olive oil that's infused with coriander seed, ginger and lemon.
What is your beauty philosophy?
I think beauty is whatever makes you feel good that doesn't hurt anyone and just respects whatever your own rituals are. I think people look good when they project it through the way they feel. It's not something that fits into a box that we should all aspire to.