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.
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.”
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.”