SINGAPORE - To the uninitiated, the rules adopted by Aesop staff border on the draconian. Guidelines are in place for seemingly every aspect of the cosmetics company, such as approved colour schemes for graphs generated by the finance department, a ban on branded food products in the office and stores, and rules on the type of music played in the office (top 40 hits are definitely no-nos - Aesop offices play the same soundtrack as their stores). OCD much? According to Aesop's general manager for Asia-Pacific, Nicholas Mulcahy, hardly.
It takes a village of like-minded, impeccably discerning talents to build a cult beauty brand. And this particular fabled village thrives on a philosophy of respect and good taste. "We are managed much like a professional kitchen," said Mr Mulcahy, who pulled open a drawer in the brand's new Suntec City store, unveiling the neatly-organised stationery to demonstrate the clutter-free environments advocated by HQ. "We remove inessential things - nobody shouts or screams, and we don't like mobile phones ringing loudly because we're in an open-concept space - to focus on what we need to do and be at our most creative. It's not about Big Brother control, it's about removing distractions."
Founded in 1986 in Melbourne, Australia, by salon owner Dennis Paphitis, the skincare brand now has over 50 signature stores across Australia, Asia, Europe, Asia and the US - a feat that was in no way achieved through flashy ad campaigns featuring supermodels or miracle potions for eternal youth.
"We are not for everybody," explained the Hong Kong-based Mr Mulcahy. "Where we do less well is where people are still in the grip of large company marketing, who buy XYZ moisturiser because everyone else is doing so.
"We don't think women can be reduced to pink and floral motifs, or think that she will look like the pretty woman in a store image after using a product."
Indeed, the modern apothecary aesthetics and clearly-labelled packaging adopted by Aesop conveys a certain understated luxury while getting straight to the point - selling products that work. Devotees swear by efficacious concoctions like the Parsley Seed range of facial skincare suitable for hydrating skin in our tropical weather, or bestsellers like the rich Resurrection Aromatique Hand Cream.
Over the years, the company has also launched whimsical items like Post-Poo Drop - an aromatic botanical bathroom deodoriser, as well as a slightly indulgent fabric cleanser, A.P.C Fine Fabric Care, developed in collaboration with the French fashion retailer.
"We don't really respond to customer feedback for product development," Mr Mulcahy candidly admitted. "There are plenty of other brands like big beverage companies that rely on crowd sourcing. But our R&D team has over 26 years of experience, and our job is to edit everything into the best combination possible."
While it may exude hyper-chic attitude through its store design and use of cerebral bon mots as part of intelligent marketing, any sense of intimidation when stepping into an Aesop store is nullified by its customer service. Retail staff are told not to talk about the weather because, as the regional chief quipped, "it's boring." Instead, they are expected to remember details about a regular customer such as a child's birthday or the last product purchased, or be able to recommend insider tips to someone from out of town.
"All staff undergo retail training, and our service is inspired by places of great hospitality such as retailers in Japan, or the Park Hyatt Tokyo - they are a very serious hotel but they are not flashy," said Mr Mulcahy, who added that Aesop toiletries are also available in the famed establishment. "The luxury is conveyed through quiet, subtle gestures."
And the experience at a local Aesop store should be just as welcoming. Launched in Singapore in 2005, the brand now has a counter in Tangs, a Millenia Walk boutique and a newly-opened outlet in the refurbished Suntec City, designed by Melbourne's Kerstin Thompson Architects. Perhaps less eye-catching than some of Aesop's other retail spaces - like a New York store in the Nolita neighbourhood, which used reclaimed copies of The New York Times as building materials, the latest store references more temperate elements such as the use of muted greys, felt, flannel and goat hair carpeting, in contrast to our climate. It is also the first brand boutique opened here since Aesop regained ownership of its stores from a local distributor in 2008.
"We had very early demand in Asia from early on, and the only way to expand back then was through distributors," said Mr Mulcahy. "We are all about the details, and want to be in charge of the details in every store."
And beauty junkies are thankful for this attention to the finer points. Because the moral of the story is, if a brand is that meticulous about details like the direction at which every bottle of product is positioned on a shelf, it probably is even more anal about the contents of its containers.
To-the-point packaging and apothecary-style branding stand out among today's plethora of potions boasting breakthrough technology and fancy labels. Check out these other understated brands that rank high on both content and style.
Who needs a celebrity endorser when you have copywriting talents, coming up with product names like Amazing Grace (a bergamot-based scent) or Miracle Worker (an anti-ageing range)? Of course it also helps that superstars like Karl Lagerfeld and Oprah Winfrey are fans of the brand, which was founded to bridge the gap between what was offered in doctor's offices and retail stores. The American brand unveiled a standalone boutique at Bugis Junction earlier this year.
We prescribe: Hope In A Jar Moisturizer, $59. The soothing cream protects skin against the environment (think arctic-like air-conditioning) with antioxidants.
This company actually started as a European-style pharmacy in New York's East Village in 1851. And while it is owned today by beauty giant L'Oreal, it retains its roots in concocting top-notch formulations, with chemists "torture-testing" new products. For example, the brand recently had explorer Doug Stoup use its Ultra Facial Cream during his expedition to the North Pole. Today, stores worldwide still reference its history through vintage apothecary fixtures, while detailed instructions on product labels allude to pharmaceutical bottles.
We prescribe: Ultra Facial Cream, $48. Cameron Diaz and Olivia Palermo swear by this super-hydrating product which, according to Stoup, provided 24 hours of protection even during an intense expedition.
One of its founders, former cosmetics buyer Matthew Malin, oversaw global distribution and sales development at Kiehl's for five years before eventually partnering with Andrew Goetz, a marketing director for design manufacturer Vitra. It comes as no surprise then that the brand is the ultimate contemporary apothecary, which uses natural ingredients and started out as a neighbourhood store in New York's Chelsea district. Its products are also manufactured locally, mainly by other small, family-run operations. The duo has been retailing their products here since 2006 with the Spa Esprit Group, and has collaborated with hair removal salon Strip on Malin+Goetz & Strip Ingrown Hair Cream.
We prescribe: Detox Face Mask, $64. Dubbed "a modern interpretation of traditional apothecary formulas", the foaming product blends complex amino acids and natural almond extracts to purify and deep cleanse.
4) Brad Biophotonic Skincare
Don't be fooled by the fuss-free, minimalist packaging of this Los Angeles-based brand. This is apothecary beauty at its most futuristic: The namesake line by the model-esque-looking Brad Hunter uses a fermentation process of transforming minerals and trace elements into rich nutrients for maximum skin absorption. It was originally developed for private-jet-flying clientele to counteract the effects of frequent air travel on skin, and each product is packaged in miron violet glass - a material that protects ingredients by filtering out damaging light, while allowing for stimulating violet light to penetrate. Beneath all the high technology, however, is an ethos of pared-down simplicity, as every product is free of dyes, fragrances and parabens.
We prescribe: Problem-solving elixirs, like Essential Elixir in ACE + MSM, $120 at luxola.com. This offers a 96 per cent reduction of sunburn cells and fades sun spots and discolouration, all while ramping up the protection of your sunscreen.
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