Path Less Taken

Photographs courtesy of Aesop

What started more than 25 years ago by hairstylists Dennis Paphitis and Suzanne Santos in a quaint salon in Melbourne, creating new products to test with kith and kin, has now grown into a global retail empire with stores in London, New York, Berlin and Singapore. With recent investments by Natura, the largest beauty conglomerate in Latin America, helping to build their business model, the past few years have seen Aesop emerge as the non-quintessential type from the plethora of beauty and skincare brands. In fact, Aesop is not a brand, as Suzanne Santos clearly states, because a brand is a concept too distant from its customers; Aesop is a new order of living.

Michael O’Keeffe

—CEO, Aesop

I’m actually interested in your retail strategy, about going in deeper—what does that mean? Does that mean opening more stores?

We know that we’ve got a global opportunity with Aesop and we can connect into communities right around the world. However, at the same time, the breadth of connection in any one market is somewhat limited, you know, and we don’t want to be all things to all people, that’s not us, we are a directional brand. So, in some markets that’s perhaps a little bit bigger than others, depending on the development of that market, but it’s still only at two percent sort of market share.

For us, in general, there are some new markets that will open, but at the same time, in many cities in the world, we still only have one or two stores or counters or something like that.

Over the next few years, it’s really just building our presence in those cities and just getting a little bit more scale, not too much but a little bit more scale.

So you have to decide between having more stores or connecting with the community through collaborations?

Yes, I mean, a combination of both. For us, the heart of a healthy retail business is your like-for-like sales and building that business up. So, we never want to compromise that by just opening more stores for the sake of it. But, where we see opportunities or a different customer that we’re currently not serving, then we see scope to open stores. It’s actually quite an organic process for us, and if we see the opportunities then we open it up, it’s not as though we must open a certain number of stores in Singapore or some other city in a certain amount of time.

Sometimes, what we find, like in the coming months, is that the opportunities all come at once. Other times, we don’t open a store for a couple of years in a certain city.

Suzanne Santos

—General Manager, Retail and Customer Relations, Aesop

Under the skin aesop skincare carolyn jackson

Now that Aesop’s such a global brand, as opposed to when you first started out, how would you say the brand has evolved since then and has the vision changed since it first started out?

Well, when we first started, when we literally just started, Dennis took the product to LA, and from LA it went to New York, and then it went to Hong Kong, and we’ve been in Joyce for 18 years since. So, it was in fact a really long time before we had our own store.

There was never actually a vision as such, there were just products that were a response to what was possible, and that what was in the market was just appalling and many of those things have not changed. Heavily fragranced, highly chemical-based, highly coloured products—none of these things were serving the customers. Honestly, you don’t need artificial colouring, you don’t need artificial fragrance, you don’t need pearlizing agents.

The idea was that hair care, in the first instance, could be made better, and no, we’ve never diverted from it. We’ve remained within that value system in whatever we do. Let’s take PPD (Post-Poo Drops) for example, whatever is in the market place on a global level is absolutely revolting but there is a purpose for that product and it could be done magnificently better. As a result, whatever is touched, is touched with that in mind.

When you were starting out, how did you know? What made you guys go on?

Well, firstly, we had succeeded, even if it’s in a small measure, and we were possibly not interested in people telling us what would work when we know what does work.

A source of great relief, in a way, is that there’s always an audience for Aesop all over the world, that there are people in Singapore for whom what we are doing is right. And, we didn’t ever question that, we didn’t ever question ourselves, and we didn’t ever accept that who we are wasn’t right. Never. We didn’t listen to the negative, we didn’t lose belief in ourselves.

Read more in The U Press N˚10 (Singapore edition).