Aesop is one of those beauty brands that however big it gets, you feel you've discovered it. It's not nearly as small as it may seem – at least not in the Southern Hemisphere, where it has 11 stores in Australia. There are a further nine in Asia, a year-old boutique in Paris and another opening shortly in London's Mayfair. And yet, crucially, it still feels like a little gem of a beauty line – full of life-changing skin care, body care and hair care that really delivers. Catherine Deneuve took Yves Saint Laurent for a swing round Aesop's New York store; they are just two of the many high-profile fans of the line.
Angela Creasy is the buyer who seized on Aesop and brought it to Liberty at the end of 2006, where it has subsequently flourished. "An innate and genuine interest in a variety of cultural topics has helped define this cult beauty brand," Creasy says. "The references gleaned from travel and other interests are incorporated into every product, which in turn appeals to inquisitive and design-literate customers."
So it's not just the formulations that make this brand a hit. It's the stolidly lateral approach to selling beauty products. Dennis Paphitis, the founder, is a self-confessed bookworm, and you'll find Aesop products plastered with quotes from everyone from Dorothy Parker to William Faulkner. "The features on our face are hardly more than gestures which have become permanent," runs the Marcel Proust quote on their Sensitive Starter Skincare Kit. "We live by these quotes," Paphitis declares.
One recent marketing initiative saw Aesop clear all the beauty products from the shelves of their Melbourne Fitzroy store, and fill them with novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the day. "We're comfortable with the contrast of high- and lowbrow," continues Paphitis. "Fitzroy is a wonderful inner-Melbourne enclave, where the odd artist can still afford to share some space, and locals live with a real sense of community." He plans to do something with IanMcEwan next.
Aesop's obsessions extend beyond the literary. Some months ago, they held a dog-feeding session in the St Kilda store. An Aesop customer had published a book on preparing your own dog food rather than purchasing it, and he was invited to demonstrate his culinary skill for a shopful of Aesop-buying dog-lovers. It's a quirky, whimsical approach to marketing that often seems to come out of left field. The company has steadfastly refused to sell out to big business; unlike, say, Kiehl's or Aveda, cosmetic firms to whose products Aesop bears certain similarities – notably an apothecary-like feel – Aesop has so far resolutely rebutted the advances of global multinationals such as L'Oréal and Estée Lauder.
"On a hard day, I'd consider having coffee with the private-equity guys," admits Paphitis. "And perhaps there will come a day when we seriously consider an offer. But, to be frank, why would we if we can remain independent and evolve with integrity and without compromise?"
Skin care is the company's biggest seller, but like Aveda, Aesop's origins lie in a hair salon. In 1987, Paphitis was a hairdresser running his own speciality hair salon in Melbourne. "It was a kind of 'anti-salon' salon," Paphitis recalls, "a safe space for those who sought real-looking hair." He developed a small line of products to treat follicles, which he then expanded to include hand products for his salon's in-house manicurist, then body care and finally on to skin care. "I guess the reason I started my own beauty company was that I wasn't patient enough to be a philosopher, nor tolerant enough to be an architect," he jokes.
The products in the Aesop line are che rished by beauty devotees for good reason. I smoothed on a faceful of B Triple C Facial Balancing Gel one particularly blemish-spotted night and awoke the next morning to an almost magically bright, clear complexion. Aesop hair products such as Violet Leaf Hair Balm and Rose Hair and Scalp Moisturising Masque not only leave hair gleaming, but smelling as divine as fresh-cut flowers, too. A Rose By Any Other Name is a fabulous, antioxidant-rich elixir that infuses skin with the rich smell of roses. And the Moroccan Neroli Shave Oil and Serum are sought-after cult products among men.
Aesop relies on word of mouth – there are no big ad campaigns, simply personal recommendations of what the products can actually do. Refreshingly, Aesop avoids boasting about organic or natural ingredients. "The words 'natural' and 'organic' are verboten at Aesop," Paphitis says. "We certainly enjoy working with botanical extracts in a number of mediums, but we have never shied away from marrying these with high-grade, man-made ingredients. The vitamin C derivative magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, for example, is mandatory in many skincare products. It is one of the most effective anti-oxidant ingredients available."
Paphitis believes that companies who use terms like "natural" and "organic" to market products to customers are misleading them. His quest is to make products of the "highest quality", and he believes that the provenance of ingredients is secondary in terms of whether they are natural or not.
Both philosophically and ethically, you get the sense that Aesop really knows where it's at. Paphitis has grown the company exponentially with his own strong principles. He puts some of this down to the geographic isolation of Australia. "We can view what we do from a healthy distance and remain resolutely uninfluenced by the industry itself," he says. "There's a healthy dose of Australian irreverence and larrikinism thrown in for good measure."
I liked Aesop initially for its packaging. It looked like something people in Lubetkin houses might own: medicinal and functional in its tinted brown bottles with a touch of early Bauhaus in those black-and-cream striped labels.
"We're drawn to 'un-designed' design," Paphitis says. "Our aesthetic fingerprint matters, yes, but the contents of our containers matter more. Also, we prefer not to be visually violated when we enter our bathroom each morning. By having a consistent, monochromatic and understated approach to packaging, we end up with something we enjoy looking at as well as using." Thus, like Aesop's fables, it's much more about content than style, the moral of the fables, what's in the bottles rather than what's on them. But, all considered, their packaging is pretty stylish too.
Aesop, 91 Mount St, London W1, 020-7409 2358; opens end of April; www.aesop-europe.comReuse content