Cover Suzanne Santos co-founded Australian skincare brand Aesop in 1987

As beauty and wellness become increasingly driven by values rather than value, the influence of Aesop and its pioneering concept is becoming undeniable

Cult is a word that gets thrown around often in the beauty world. But few brands can claim to have such a legion of loyalists as Aesop. Since it was founded in 1987 in Melbourne, the Australian skincare brand has drummed up an army of conscious customers who care about design, the environment, consumption and, if we’re being real, status.

I first met Suzanne Santos, co-founder and chief customer officer of Aesop, when we appeared together on a panel to discuss how Covid-19 has transformed the beauty industry. “We’ve lived in the bathroom in a very matter-of-fact way, where we’ve tried to do things quickly; slap product on our face and rapidly clean our teeth,” she lamented at the time. “Now, we have this pause, and the bathroom is a place where there is consideration. I personally welcome the shift in demand for more time to nurture and celebrate oneself. We have always encouraged our customers to use each product with a sense of purpose.”

Conducted over Zoom, Santos spent much of our discussion pacing around her sun-soaked Melbourne living room, dressed in a loose white ensemble and thick-framed glasses. Her demeanour is at first intimidating, then refreshing, then captivating. You soon come to realise that, like Aesop, Santos simply doesn’t operate the same way others of her ilk do. There are no rehearsed or publicist-approved answers; careful and considered in her responses, she possesses the kind of contemplative authenticity that has shaped the brand she’s helped to build over three decades. My interest piqued, I asked if we could continue our conversation after the panel.

“We have adhered to a fiercely independent approach to skincare, and found our voice by operating outside of the industry,” Santos tells me in a follow-up conversation. Aesop has been a renegade of sorts in the wellness space, and as more brands move towards becoming cleaner, greener and more inclusive, they’re taking notes on the codes that have defined Aesop from day dot, as they say in Australia.

On rejecting animal testing and staying cruelty-free

Some examples: Aesop has never used animal testing on any of its products, which are 100 per cent cruelty-free and vegan, and housed in eco-friendly amber glass bottles to preserve the potent botanical extracts. Its androgynous packaging also makes Aesop one of the early gender-neutral beauty companies, characterised by using art and literature, rather than models, to represent the brand, which is apt since it was named after an ancient Greek storyteller.

“The ideals of this generation in terms of fairness and equality, of what is inside a jar and the parameters of how it got there ... [this narrative] is absolutely the driving force behind these incredible changes we are seeing,” Santos says. “The beauty industry has acknowledged that it can no longer speak in the same voice [that it has] and the demands of that will become higher, and the relinquishing of brands that don’t respond will be clear.”

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On using eco-friendly from the get-go

A pioneer in slow, clean beauty, Aesop has always used sustainable packaging—its amber glass bottles are instantly recognisable, and a common sight in upscale hotel and restaurant restrooms around the world. Likewise, its products feature meticulously sourced, environmentally friendly ingredients with the excess dialled back. “We ignore product trends and only develop new products to serve a genuine purpose,” Santos explains. “It is our quest to do less and do it well.”

Its new range of candles

A perfect example is the recently launched collection of Aesop candles. As a brand known for its unmistakably earthy scents—Aesop has made faces smell of herbaceous parsley seed, nourished hands with notes of cedar atlas and rosemary leaf, and even masked bathroom unpleasantries with its tangerine peel and ylang ylang “Post-Poo Drops”—one wonders why it’s taken 33 years to release something as simple and, frankly, commercial, as a candle. But, hey, that’s just the Aesop way.

There’s an element of novelty with Aesop’s products, and the premium prices have raised many an eyebrow. More than seemingly basic skincare, customers are paying for ethical ingredients, the appeal of treading lightly on the environment and the meticulous in-house research and development that promises both quality and moral consistency.

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Going against beauty standards

Aesop has also rejected the promotion of beauty ideals. “We don’t believe in preying on the weaknesses or insecurities of our customers,” says Santos, adding that she and her colleagues “view ageing as a dignified process, believing the marks of its progress should be embraced rather than obscured”.

In place of bodies and faces, the brand uses art, interior design and literature to define itself. Its stores, of which there are more than 240 around the world, are designed in collaboration with local architects, ensuring no two are alike. Santos describes them as “places for peace and quiet contemplation”. Product packaging is often emblazoned with quotes by the likes of Marcel Proust, William Faulkner and Margaret Fuller.

We ignore product trends. It is our quest to do less and do it well.

“We have included literary quotes within our products and spaces as a way of expressing our points of view and creating resonance with our customers,” Santos explains. “Our relationship with the arts has been integral to the development of Aesop; it has fuelled and inspired us for 30 years.”

In October 2019, the brand launched Aesop: The Book, published by Rizzoli. More than a retrospective journey into the brand’s history, it is a love letter to the artisans, artists and architects that have inspired and shaped the brand. The book opens with this quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of Le Petit Prince: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and open seas.”

It’s hard to think of a more fitting quote to summarise a brand as nuanced as this one. After all, Aesop has made people do something that skincare brands usually don’t: it has made them think.