How cult skincare brand Aesop took over the world without losing its edge

Australian skincare brand Aesop chose Hong Kong to offer a sneak preview of its latest development - a trio of new products irreverently dubbed 'In Two Minds' specifically targeting combination skin. The first look takes place at the site of Aesop's soon-to-open store and treatment room on Gough Street around the corner from Hollywood Road. Historically known as the border between the city's European and Chinese quarters, before housing a burgeoning printing industry, Gough Street is well-suited to Aesop as a nod to its long relationship with literature – not to mention the fact the soupy humidity outside is one of the key causes of the tricky skin condition which is more likely to target men.

"Combination skin has gone from being a minority group to a predominant answer customers provide when faced with the question 'tell us about your skin'," explains Suzanne Santos, Aesop's Chief Customer Officer who has been with the brand since its inception in Melbourne in 1987. "We have always had products for combination skin but this growing consciousness around it is why we've created these products."

We're not self delusional, we're not saving lives. We're making very good products for people.

Suzanne Santos

Aesop's status as a cult cosmetic brand that has transcended into the mainstream without losing its boutique clout is the kind of success story many companies aspire to. Before Aesop, who knew it would be acceptable to give someone a hand soap as a gift knowing it would be received with the same reverence as a bottle of Krug? But that's what Santos, along with Aesop's founder Dennis Paphitis, have done. "We're a skincare company first and our intellectual property is deeply tied up inside those products and the positive effect that they're going to have on people's lives," she explains. "What we would like is a person that doesn't have to think deeply once their in their bathroom."

An example of branding done right, from the font to the pared-back, laboratory-style packaging, Aesop's instantly-recognisable visual identity has remained consistent, as has its message on what the products do, and don't do. "We're not self delusional, we're not saving lives," asserts Santos. "We're making very good [skin and hair] products for people who are seeking a whole range of other experiences on the side of the concept of buying very good cosmetics."

We move to Aesop's Hong Kong head offices, where aromatic tea is served in earthenware ceramics. The office interior is an austere cream and wood oasis that reflects the minimal-fuss attitude of both its founders and philosophy towards skincare. But this absence of excess also reinforces the mystery that somehow surrounds the company - interviews with Santos are extremely rare and Paphitis rarer still, and the company never advertises. They don't have to. The result is a narrative that hovers between an amusing fable their namesake might have crafted and a bizarre mythology, including one baffling claim regarding a directive on the kind of toilet paper each store must use. ("Well that's just untrue," smiles Santos.)

Santos first encountered Paphitis at his original hair salon. "I went to work for him not knowing him, he not knowing me. We were introduced, he needed somebody and I needed a job that worked to suit what I wanted from work at that time."

Throughout our interview, Santos oscillates between abstract concept and a similar no-nonsense commentary. Every word is deliberate and not without intent. There's a point, after one particularly considered answer, my face must have hinted at my own inner turmoil keeping up with some of the ideas put forward on the table. "Did you understand what I was meaning?"

It's an amusing moment but one that highlights how acutely aware Santos is of communicating Aesop's philosophy – one where nothing is without purpose and embraces the simplification of a streamlined yet pleasurable experience of life. "We feel very strongly that two things are happening: one that the world of multi-products has stopped and the world is evolving back to a far more sensible environment in regards to what the skin needs."

Where the symptoms of combination skin are complex, Aesop's approach for In Two Minds remains simple: three steps involving cleansing, toning, and finally hydrating. "There are three ingredients [here] that we haven't used before: acai which is a soothing ingredient; andiroba - an oil derived from a seed. And the last one is a resin which is thicker and derived directly from the plant itself called copaiba and it's a calming product. And the skin, the combination type, needs the conclusion of this order to sooth and to be calm and to be matte."

While it is at its heart a skincare line, Aesop's success has also been tied into its determination to draw in experiences of culture. While poetry and literature plays a role in the packaging of the products, it has been a collaborative approach to architecture that has also seen the the company's retail stores become an international  favourite. Their global network of stores are site-specific concepts that incorporate influence from local surroundings (the Gough Street location, for example, features original letter presses that print poetry, and Milan's Corso Magenta store was inspired by the pantries of 20th Century villas). "It's a natural courtship to accommodate the curiosity and the wonder of what on earth do they do in there," muses Santos. "I can't tell you how that is a mantra around the world, of people crossing in to an Aesop store and saying 'I've always wondered what you do in here'."

The writer travelled to Hong Kong with assistance from Aesop.