Loi de Sud: how soap at the price of champagne won the pandemic | Beauty
I first noticed the small amber bottles of Aesop in fancy restaurants and hotel rooms a few years ago: they were the glass ambassadors of a distant land of sophisticated and futuristic beauty products. Then I spotted them on The modern house website (and sometimes on the Howdens furniture catalog), positioned next to brick showers and Belfast sinks. In the spring of 2020, the bottles were everywherethe little vials of his Post-Poo Drops (intended to mask bad smells) in the toilet as a shortcut for a certain domestic sophistication.
The Aesop bathroom was in a house with Veja sneakers in the hallway, Torres crisps in the cupboard, and a dish of Alison Roman pasta warming in an Our Place skillet on the stove. Like Diptyque candles, Aesop products were a cultural signifier far beyond their practical applications. I have a friend who admitted to placing a bottle in the bathroom while trying to sell his apartment.
Then came the coronavirus. Whatever else can be said about the pandemic, it was time for the handwashing boom, with Covid creating excellent business conditions for Aesop, and in particular its handwashing. The NHS has spent millions on videos of proper handwashing technique, with Boris Johnson advising us to do it for the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.
Aesop was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the new foam craving. With the world focused on hygiene, the brand has become ubiquitous. Handwashing has become a matter of life and death, the first part of the ‘hands, face, space’ liturgy, so paying £29 for a 500ml bottle of soap – more per milliliter than Moët & Chandon – has started to seem, if not reasonable exactly, something of a treat, especially since many of life’s pleasures had been taken away. Inevitably, the brand launched a slightly more expensive hand sanitizer – described by GQ as a “flex for anxious times” – but it was sales of its established handwash product that skyrocketed. Aesop declined to provide numbers, but John Lewis listed it as one of its pandemic bestsellers.
“I love Aesop,” says fashion and beauty editor Lisa Niven-Phillips. “You see it in certain places or homes and you think it’s something you want to be a part of.”
All brands dream of combining small-scale allure with mass profits, and Aesop, which has been quietly going since its founding in Melbourne in 1987, is a case in point.
But how exactly does a cult product become widespread? Even if you couldn’t identify Resurrection Aromatique Hand Soap, you might recognize its scent (tangerine, rosemary and cedar), which comes with a powerful sensory association; if your hands smell like Aesop, you’re probably having a good time.
The black and white lettering is also identifiable from a mile away: the minimalist wording, the French translations, the fonts (Helvetica; Optima Medium), the macron diacritic (a straight bar) above the “e” on the label, so you know say “Eesop”.
This attention to detail has been present from the beginning. The company was founded by a hairdresser, Dennis Paphitis, who started by mix essential oils in her hair products. The company was called Emeis (“we” in Greek) before being renamed Aesop in 1989. From day one, Paphitis hired an assistant, Suzanne Santos, who proved essential to the development of the company. It started with just four products – the Aromatique hand soap launched in 2006 – but has grown to almost 100. Since 2016 it has been owned by a Brazilian company, Natura & Co, and has an annual turnover of over of £250 million. Paphitis is now an adviser but Santos remains director of operations.
of Aesop internal processes are traditions. Former fashion and shopping website Racked reported in 2017 that office staff had to use black Bic pens and were not allowed to eat lunch at their desks. Everything from toilet paper to colors on slideshow graphics is prescribed. Aesop declined to comment.
“We are working on seemingly insane decisions,” A paphite once told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We work to make things look effortless and like they’re happening. But actually, there’s a lot of energy involved.
For Rory Sutherland, vice president of branding agency Ogilvy, Paphitis’ heritage and Aesop’s brand image are important elements of the company’s success. “I first met him in Greece and assumed he was Greek,” he says. “The packaging is very clever. It’s a category that we could call “chem-lux”, insofar as it evokes both the five-star hotel and the apothecary.
At £29, the hand wash is pricey enough that you could buy it as a gift without feeling stingy, while still staying within the range of what a good bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers might cost. A friend received a bottle as a prenatal gift to take to the maternity ward and says it ‘transformed’ her birth experience.
Since 2004, when its first store opened in Melbourne, Aesop has used physical premises to create an experience that feels more like a spa than a boutique. The stores are vital to the brand, uncluttered temples in which products are displayed like museum pieces (director Luca Guadagnino even helped design the minimalist Rome branch). Today, it has more than 240 branches in 25 countries, as well as nearly 100 department store counters. The staff would be not allowed to talk to customers about the weather: it’s too banal.
But not everyone is convinced. “I wish bars and restaurants with good wine lists wouldn’t use their products,” says wine expert Nina Caplan. “Have a drink after washing your hands and you’ll taste Chateau Aesop whatever you order.”
Restaurants, of course, have played an important role in popularizing handwashing. There aren’t many other places where people repeatedly wash their hands in a refined atmosphere.
But for some restaurateurs, the packaging alone is enough to give the desired effect. The refill economy (which encourages people to refill their bottles, thereby saving on packaging waste) has exploded in recent years, with companies like Fill and Ouai alongside Aesop leading the eco- charged.
The owner of an upmarket bistro in the south of England went further: “It was given to me as a Christmas present and it sold out just as I was opening,” she says, “and I’m absolutely not going to spend £29 on a bottle of soap. Instead, she filled the bottle with a cheaper alternative, before qualifying her misdeed by writing “it’s not” on the bottle above the word Aesop. “My favorite part is when people come out of the toilet smelling their hands, not realizing the bottle has supermarket hand soap in it.”
The brand has also inspired other companies. The labels of the Danish brand Meraki look remarkably similar. In October, discount retailer Aldi launched its own version, Lacura Wellness Aromatic Hand Wash, in a dark amber bottle with minimalist lettering, which sells for an affordable £2.49.
In typically hard-hitting interview in 2015, Paphitis said that Aesop’s attention to detail was the reason why “Philistine plagiarists who try to copy what we do will always – always fail”. Still, there are signs that some of the copycats might be getting closer. Wary of Aesop’s ubiquity, some hotel companies are looking to alternatives.
“We like Aesop but we have reviewed our costs during the pandemic and discovered Gloved,” says James Hart of Harts, the London restaurant group that includes Barrafina, Quo Vadis and El Pastor. “We did a group test and everyone thought the cedar wood smell of Gloved is complementary to the food – a good thing if you’re going back to finish your meal. It comes in refillable glass bottles and it is very good value for money.
Aesop still ships everything from its Melbourne factory, which can be costly and carbon-intensive. It has acknowledged these concerns and announced plans to reduce its footprint (and historically has been ahead of the game when it comes to things like shrinking packaging). But as a profitable and successful business, it’s the obvious target for ambitious newcomers.
Charlie Vickery is Managing Director of Haeckels, a seasonally and locally focused natural skincare company established 10 years ago in Margate, Kent. The company’s first product, and still its second bestseller, is a bar of soap made from seaweed picked 100 meters from its laboratory. A bar feels good in the hands, he says, and doesn’t involve the high carbon transport costs.
“Aesop pioneered soap as a design-driven product, so we owe it part of our heritage,” says Vickery. “But I think it’s easy for a lot of natural skincare brands to fall and get dragged down in their wake.”
As lockdown regulations ease, Aesop rides the nation’s sinks like a soapy colossus. He even broke America, appearing in Carrie and Big’s kitchen in the recent Sex and the City reboot. Aesop may have won the pandemic, but how long will it last? Call it southern law.