The Woman Behind Aesop

She’s been with the brand from the cradle, covering various aspects of the business from product QC and training to PR and mentoring. Suzanne Santos talks about the lifelong enterprise she co-founded.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

She’s been with the brand from the cradle, covering various aspects of the business from product QC and training to PR and mentoring. Suzanne Santos talks about the lifelong enterprise she co-founded.

“I would say there are a few touches that I’ve had a part in, but there are many other handsin this company. Many people have given enormously and their voices are much greater.”

An interview with Suzanne Santos, the 60-year-old co- founder and now product advocate of Aesop, doesn’t really feel like an interview.

She offers few neatly packaged soundbites – not because she isn’t eloquent or forthcoming, but because she takes time to consider each question before answering, often in detail and with a slightly philosophical tone. Answers are interspersed with her own questions. And topics can veer into the unexpected – she asks if she may see baby photos, offers kindly advice on raising kids, gives her take on reading which, contrary to doomsayers, she reckons has been rediscovered.

She speaks at length on issues she feels strongly about, which are many. These range from social inequality (“I can’t bear the fact that we still pretend there aren’t many people struggling”) and largescale suffering to education (“Kids aren’t taught about good nutrition, how to cook and survive, how to be strong when things get tough”).

When quizzed about her famous loathing of wastefulness and excess, she laughs, admitting it’s true. “We have office lunches once a month and I cannot bear it if there’s any food in the fridges at the end of the day that hasn’t been given out to staff or people who are less fortunate. I get very angry about that. Waste is wrong.”

In all, a sit-down with Santos is more like a conversation with a wise, no-nonsense and progressive aunt with a soft-spoken manner and sharp intellect. Which is fitting, since Aesop is a brand that’s very much about meaningful conversations and exchanges – with customers, collaborators, and even itself.

“So many people have been involved in the conversations that led us to our current position,” says Santos. “Dennis [Paphitis, co-founder] is a great listener, Michael [O’Keeffe, CEO] is a great listener. We’ve had many exceptional people cross our paths and engage with the company. It’s impossible not to see all those layers working with those two men to make us what we are.”

And what they are right now is a global beauty player with 300 stores across 25 countries, and a turnover that online trade publication The Business of Fashion puts at US$215 million (S$287 million). Aesop has come a long way from its beginnings in 1987 as four botanical haircare products sold by Paphitis out of his small Melbourne hair salon.

Santos says: “We didn’t start with company visions and a philosophy. It was not a contrived concept put on paper. It was about doing things with another mindset, another attitude. For starters, what would or would not be inside the jar. So in terms of a philosophy, formulation is the core of who we are.”

From there, other aspects of the brand’s identity took shape. Dark brown glass bottles (now a visual trademark of Aesop) house the products – not for aesthetic reasons but because they extend their shelf life and reduce the artificial preservatives needed. Glass is also easily produced and recycled, which fits with the founders’ eco-consciousness.

Paphitis’ respect for thinkers led to printing inspiring quotes on product packaging. And a simple desire to share interesting developments and worthy causes in the arts, culture and society resulted in The Fabulist and The Ledger – newsletters produced by Aesop which aren’t about the products they sell. Both are free on the brand’s website, intended purely for reading pleasure and as brain food.

 “Dennis is a very quiet and shy man, but his presence [in the brand] is extremely deep. There are very few independent thinkers on this earth, people who naturally think differently from others, and he is someone born with that very rare personality,” she says.

Ask Santos about her own handprints on the company she’s nurtured since its inception, however, and she is reluctant to overstate her influence. “I would say there are a few touches that I’ve had a part in, but there are many other hands in this company. Many people have given enormously and their voices are much greater,” she says.

Intended or not, her discreet grace and aversion to hype are traits shared by Aesop, a brand that has perfected the art of selling by not selling. While many brands bank on famous faces, catchy slogans or hyperbolic claims, Aesop never advertises, doesn’t use celebrity endorsements, and states contents and functions plainly on its packaging.

“We never ever look at other cosmetic companies. Not because we’re rude or dismissive, but we never saw ourselves as competing with them. And we’re still not in that position. Our products sit firmly in the commercial world, but we don’t look to others as a reference for what we should do,” says Santos.

Instead, the brand looks inwards. Both Santos and Paphitis have stated in interviews that around 80 per cent of the company’s spending goes towards ingredients and formulas, whereas the industry norm could be as low as 10 per cent. It also puts immense effort into upholding its identity – no two stores look alike, yet all exude the same templeof-calm vibe and are quietly stunning in a way that can only be described as Aesopian.

Rather than announce its presence, the brand waits to be discovered by those who embrace the simplicity, finesse and lifestyle it espouses. “I don’t think we’re here to change people’s views of life. Rather, we’re here for those who already have a line of thinking about what they want or don’t want in their world,” she says.

This low-key approach can, however, mean that Aesop doesn’t actively shout about its strengths. Though little more needs to be said about the divine scents and luxe textures of its body care, its skincare doesn’t always get the same credit, with some users unconvinced of the brand’s know-how in that department.

“We actually sell a heck of a lot of skincare,” counters Santos. “It may be that a lot of people began a relationship with us through our body care. But I think more are buying us as a skincare company.”

She adds: “I’m sitting here in a company that’s 31 years old and growing. That, for me, is already a convincing position that we have and will continue to succeed as a skincare company. The company is not set up to convince people in ways other than through use. We’re not here to berate others for what they are or aren’t doing, or forcefully use our voice to beckon people through our door. We actually, in many ways, just wait for people to walk into our stores.” 

My Reading Room
1 In a nod to Singapore’s old coffee shops and HDB flats, Aesop Vivocity has unglazed floor tiles, and woven rattan on its shelves and sink counter.
My Reading Room
2 Referencing Orchard Road’s nutmeg-plantation origins, Aesop Ion resembles an upside-down forest with pink walls that recall the spice mace.
My Reading Room
3 Inspired by traditional Peranakan courtyards, Aesop Ngee Ann City has salmon-hued terrazzo flooring, popular for its cooling effect, and tarnished copper shelving.
These products have a strong following.
My Reading Room

Parsley Seed skincare range

“It’s a self driven range. I applied the Parsley Seed Serum the other day and looked at my face, and I have to say that I really get why people love this.”
My Reading Room

Lucent Facial Concentrate

“We always predicted it would be popular. You can see its effects and it’s really magic.” 

My Reading Room

Blue Chamomile Mask

“It’s really a product of our times. You can cleanse your face, put it on, then go to bed. It has a skinsoftening effect, and is great if you sleep with air-conditioning.” 
My Reading Room

In Two Minds skincare range

“Created for combination skin, this has found a home in Singapore. Many of us spend a lot of time in this region, and we know the frustration of not having products for customers with this skin type.” 
My Reading Room

Post-poo Drops bathroom deodoriser

“A quirky product that also has a big following. It’s successful because it’s a successful product when used.”