Mon, 6 March 2023 at 7:00 pm GMT
Within five minutes of entering the Aesop store on Regent Street, I’ve had my hands reverentially washed and moisturised at a stone sink reminiscent of a church font, and my coat and scarf scented in a space-age looking glass portal. Outside, London whirls by at its usual frenetic pace, but inside Aesop is an air of expensive serenity.
And that’s the point. Aesop (it’s ee-sop, not ay-sop) has been phenomenally successful for a variety of reasons – the most obvious being the ‘brand experience’, which is desirable enough that people desperately want to recreate it at home.
The Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash has become the stuff of legend – and is found in the bathrooms of White Lotus-like hotels, restaurants with month-long waiting lists, and a certain type of aspirational middle-class house (and particularly those on the market).
“It is the ultimate affordable luxury symbol to have sink-side,” explains Francesca Sciaraffa-Stubbs, the beauty buyer at Liberty – one of few department stores allowed to stock the famously fussy brand. “It’s a real status signifier.”
Status is always good for business and now the Australian brand (which is majority owned by Brazilian company Natura) is at the centre of a £1.6bn bidding war between LVMH and L’Oréal. If you’re going to be in a bidding war, these are the suitors you want vying for you. LVMH is the luxury goods empire controlled by the world’s richest person, Bernard Arnault, while L’Oréal is the world’s largest cosmetics company. Also in the fray is Japanese makeup and fragrance brand Shiseido, which is said to be weighing up an offer. These are heady heights for a shampoo and soap purveyor founded in Melbourne in 1987 – so how did they do it?
Like all good companies, the idea for Aesop was born from a place of necessity.
Hairdresser Dennis Paphitis wanted to create a more relaxing environment for his clients (particularly, apparently, the demanding ones) and he did this by covering up the smell of ammonia with natural formulations made from sage, rosemary and other herbs; he then placed these in monochromatic bottles on uniform rows to create a sense of peace. By the mid 1990s, Paphitis had developed enough of a cult following to step away from the salon.
“I remember when Aesop came to London – it was one of the first Australian brands to focus on natural beauty, and it felt really different and almost revolutionary,” says Millie Kendall, the CEO of the British Beauty Council.
“From the very beginning, it was one of those brands that you stuck with once you had adopted it. It was the opposite of fad-like. All these years later, it is still very solid – and while the packaging is quite nondescript, that is part of why it feels like you’re buying into something real.”
If you’ve used their products before, you probably associate them with the smell of vetiver and sage, and with their squat amber bottles and Helvetica typeface (and possibly with a hit to your wallet, given the sorts of hotels and restaurants they tend to reside in).
But Aesop is clever in that while it offers you the chance to cleanse your skin, your hair, your house and even your pet (yes, there is a dog shampoo) the straightforward approach means it never feels as if it is selling out.
“It is not a brand that follows trends or has regular brand updates or repackaging, it just evolves and keeps moving forward and that shows a real belief and confidence in what it does,” says Net-a-Porter beauty director Newby Hands. “With the bath and body ranges in particular it maintains that feeling of modern, pared back luxury that never really goes out of style – and that’s not easy to do.”
The simplicity of the branding means Aesop has been appealing to men since the 1990s – a time when scented products were almost exclusively aimed at women.
“It’s quite masculine-looking so it has a real gender neutrality about it,” says Kendall. “They really know their consumer, and more than most brands they have a wide range of customers – and the stores are a big part of that. You go inside and it has this very clean kitchen-like environment that I’m sure has inspired interior design trends around London.”
And Melbourne, Cape Town, New York, São Paulo, Rio, Dusseldorf, Oslo and the many other cities in 23 countries where Aesop has a foothold (the brand now has more than 200 stores in total).
Although this isn’t a Pret a Manger style identikit expansion.
Aesop is particularly proud of the highly localised approach to design: for their first store in Rome, they hired Luca Guadagnino – director of Call Me by Your Name – to turn the interior into an homage to a nearby church; in Singapore, dark pink walls are offset by an upside-down rainforest, while in Berlin mint and emerald tiles line the walls in reference to the area’s Bauhaus past. In one Manhattan outpost, the store is covered in 400,000 strips of pages from The New York Times.
And yes, there are elements of it that can seem a bit ridiculous – people who work there are called “Aesopian” and are forbidden from talking about the weather (“Customers do not benefit from benign and obvious commentary,” Paphitis once told an Australian newspaper). Copies of The Paris Review, which the brand has partnered with, are in all the treatment rooms and on the website you will find quotes by Saint Francis de Sales and George Bernard Shaw.
But it works. “I cannot tell you how many bath and body brands come to me and tell me that they’re aiming to be the next Aesop,” says Kendall. “But that’s the clever thing about classic branding – if you have the right identity and stick to it, everyone who wants to emulate you will just look like they are copying you.”