Each Aesop boutique is a little oasis in the urban jungle; once you’re in, the disconnect is immediate. Each has its own identity; for each, a leading architect or designer is commissioned to reinterpret the brand’s stark, luxurious identity. Now New Yorkers are spoiled with four Aesop boutiques scattered across the city: in Nolita, the West Village, University Place and, tomorrow, on West Broadway in Soho. There, a beauty expert will enquire about your needs, offer a product sampler that you can take back home – and talk to you about the brand philosophy.
Aesop’s owner, Dennis Paphitis, was born in a family of hairdressers and barbers; he owned a hair salon for years and launched one of the world’s most successful and exclusive luxury beauty brands. Yet when asked about his most precious beauty secret he responds: “attitude, intellect, humility.” This deeper than skin approach to beauty has been key to Aesop’s success since the brand’s launch in 1987. Paphitis is an avid traveler, reader and art collector who believes that, as the Spanish philosopher Salvador Paniker stated, “Better than a face-lift, to stay young we need to be permanently in a state of intellectual curiosity” – and his products reflect that. They are simply packaged in apothecary style bottles the color of amber (to block light from spoiling the formulas) and filled with potent, no-nonsense lotions such as the purifying Parsley seed cleansing oil, the soothing Moroccan neroli post-shave lotion, the cooling Sage Cedar scalp treatment and luxuriant Mystra perfume. Inspiring quotes from writers from Faulkner to Proust are printed on the labels in retro black type. Although all his products are derived from botanicals, Paphitis doesn’t label them natural or organic, appellations that he believes to mislead consumers (most organic labeled products, he says, are not fully chemical-free).
There are no marketing or advertising campaigns and Paphitis relies only on word of mouth. As he once told The Australian, “We are more about whispering than about screaming.” Thanks to the quality of the products, minimalist packaging and brilliant distribution, Aesop goods are cult favorites among beauty editors, fashionistas and actresses (including Catherine Deneuve and Cate Blanchett). Paphitis now owns 35 stores throughout the world, including three in New York.
The story (in ancient Greece, Aesop was a storyteller) began when Paphitis was a child. The lone son of a Greek immigrant, he was expected to follow a so-called honorable path – medicine, accounting or law, perhaps. But he was more fascinated by the world of salons, their heady whiffs of perfume and freshly cut hair and joyous chatter. He studied with Monsieur Maurice in Paris and traveled to Italy, where he discovered the pleasures of simple, authentic luxuries. Returning to Australia, he opened a small luxury hair salon. There, he stripped his clients of their makeup and jewels, creating healthy, glowing hair miles away from the stiff styles of the eighties. His salon soon morphed into a full-service spa, and Paphitis began experimenting with products alongside an old school chemist, sourcing the best ingredients from around the world and using cutting edge technologies to create new formulas. Soon Aesop was born in a California lab.
Today Paphitis seeks inspiration through art, architecture, cinema, literature and music. (Francis Bacon, Almodovar and Fellini are favorites); this sensibility is threaded through Aesop stores and products. One of Paphitis’s dreams is to commission the artist Anish Kapoor to design a red beeswax store. Meanwhile, he continues to work on the formulas every day and test-drives the products himself twice a year to make sure they deliver their promises. After all, as he says, “life is two short for even one cup of sub standard coffee.”