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The Aesop store on the Upper West Side of NYC.
Photo: Aesop

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The Fable of Aesop’s Hand Soap

There’s a reason the brand is so damn irresistible.

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When you mention the brand Aesop to someone, you will get this enthusiastic response close to 100 percent of the time: “Oh my god, I love their hand soap so much,” usually followed by a sheepish, “But I know it’s so expensive.” The hand soap, officially called “Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash,” costs $39. It smells like someone smashed an orange all over some freshly cut cedar and then sprinkled rosemary on it, but in a muted way. It is the chicest method of killing germs that you can find on the market right now.

The Australian company’s awareness has grown in the US over the past several years thanks in part to the over 40 stores in 16 cities that have opened here since 2012. But arguably it’s also because of the inclusion of those signature black- and cream-striped hand-wash bottles you’ll find in the bathrooms of certain types of restaurants and hotels. Is the decor vaguely vintage with interesting art on the walls? Is it locavore? Perfect Aesop habitat. As this delightful July Saveur article about the ubiquity of Aesop in a certain type of restaurant notes: “On any given night, diners all over the world are walking back to their table thinking, I should really get a bottle of that.” They must actually do it, because it’s one of the brand’s best sellers.

Aesop screens every restaurant and hotel it works with, and yes, it will turn places down. It’s purposeful. “Our relationships with restaurants and hotels are created from a shared affinity for exemplary food and hospitality. If that affinity isn’t present or reciprocated on both sides, we do not partner with a restaurant,” Suzanne Santos, Aesop’s general manager, retail and customer service, writes in an email. “We always meet with the founder to understand their approach to food, hospitality, and to experience the character of the space firsthand.”

Aesop believes that what you eat and how you live contribute to your well-being, which is why you’ll find it in restaurants so frequently. As far as specifically why it will decline to provide its soap to a particular establishment, well, it’s just a case of knowing a good partner when they see it. Cool people recognize other cool people out in the wild, apparently.

A few establishments explained the allure from their end. “Aesop was a great fit for us, as I believe we have a similar classic and unassuming aesthetic, as well as commitment to quality,” Kelly Schmidt, the innkeeper at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, writes in an email. “The woodsy-clean scent is perfect for all of our guests without being too perfume-y, which can be troublesome in a culinary environment. A simple everyday task such as cleansing & hydrating your hands after a meal turns into a special little luxury.”

Aesop amenities at the Gramercy Park Hotel in NYC.
Photo: Gramercy Park Hotel

The Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City is Aesop’s longest standing US partner and has been stocking the brand’s hotel amenities such as shampoo and body wash since 2014. It uses 250,000 units a year. “The philosophy of Aesop as a brand is fully aligned with Gramercy Park Hotel’s vision for creating unique and luxurious experiences in beautiful settings,” Danielle Choi, Gramercy Park Hotel’s director of sales and marketing, writes in an email. “Just like Gramercy Park Hotel, Aesop always considers aesthetics, scent, touch, and nourishment.”

Hand soap and tiny shampoo might be some people’s first introduction to Aesop, but it’s actually a 30-year-old beauty brand that sells dozens of products including haircare, skincare, fragrance, and home scents. The $73 Parsley Anti-oxidant Seed Serum is Aesop’s best-seller globally, and US customers in particular have been fans of its $35 deodorant. The brand also sells a few unexpected things, like this sticky face gel that dries to a smooth finish, animal fur shampoo, hand lotion so attractively packaged that a Racked editor admitted to buying it just for Instagram, and even “Post-Poo Drops,” which add a citrus tang to your toilet bowl post, uh, poo. It also just released a toothpaste that is formulated with anise, wasabi, and cardamom oil. This month it launched its third fragrance, the tricky-to-pronounce Hwyl (a Welsh word with no direct English translation that has to do with emotion), a unisex smoky, woody scent. The price points are fairly luxurious, with most skincare in the $40 to $120 range. In addition to its own freestanding stores, it’s sold at Nordstrom, Barneys, Need Supply, Saks, and Net-a-Porter.

Aesop was founded in 1987 by a hairdresser named Dennis Paphitis in Melbourne, Australia, who started the line by mixing essential oils into hair products that had strong ammonia scents. (And for the record, the name is pronounced “ee-sop” not “ay-sop.”) Aesop started out by wholesaling its products to retailers; Fred Segal in LA was one of its first US stockists, in the late ’80s. It opened its first freestanding store in Melbourne in 2004, with more stores opening globally after that.

In 2012, Aesop sold a 65 percent stake in the company to the eco-leaning Brazilian beauty company Natura Brasil, which allowed the company to scale up. As of the end of last year, Natura Brasil fully owned Aesop. Aesop also credits its global expansion to the savvy of Michael O’Keeffe, Aesop’s CEO since 2003. Aesop has grown 30 to 40 percent every year since its inception and earned $178 million in revenue in 2016. Sixty-five percent of its sales come from its own stores, 25 percent from department stores, 6 percent from its website, and 4 percent from cafes and restaurants, according to an April article in the Australian Financial Review. One has to assume that those cafes act as marketing, driving smitten hand soap users into the brand’s stores.

It’s difficult to categorize Aesop, which might be part of its appeal. You know it’s definitely fancy, but not so fancy it won’t admit that people poop. While it uses many plant-based ingredients in its products, it doesn’t want to be known as a “natural” brand. It’s definitely well positioned in the current beauty market, which increasingly favors transparency and effective ingredients perceived to be safe.

“We’ve always been interested in botanicals and what they can do for the benefit of the skin or the hair in our formulations, and we use essential oils for the scents of all of our products instead of synthetic fragrances,” says Kate Forbes, the general manager of marketing and innovation, whose background is product formulation. “But we did realize a while ago that you have to still combine that with some synthetically manufactured ingredients to get that efficacy.” As one example, she points to vitamin C, an ingredient that’s tricky to work with in its natural form due to its extreme instability, but which performs well in a “modified” version.

But arguably, it is the design that pulls you into Aesop first. Paphitis, who is now an “advisor” and not involved in day-to-day operations, has given some interviews to the Australian press over the years that give some clues to why that soap is so damn appealing.

In company lore, every aspect of Aesop’s image — from the colors staff use in PowerPoint presentations to “approved toilet paper” — has been strictly prescribed and meticulously controlled. Some of the quirkier Aesop rules state that staff are not allowed to talk about the weather with customers — too superficial and banal. Only classic black Bic pens are used in offices. Staff aren’t allowed to eat lunch at their desks. It all contributes to an intangible experience. As Paphitis said in one memorable interview, “It’s why the philistine plagiarists who attempt to copy what we do always fail — always. Thousands of seemingly insignificant and bizarre actions accrue and collude together to become the essence of the product.”

So with that all happening behind the scenes, you can imagine the attention that goes into the final product. Aesop has partnered with noted architects and designer firms through the years for its store designs, none of which are exactly the same. They all have some signature elements, though, and feature a prominently displayed large sink and rows and rows of product neatly lined up on shelves, with the different-sized stripes on the bottles making the wall look like one giant art installation. The stores also pay homage to their locations. For example, a store on New York City’s Upper West Side recently opened in the former location of a French laundry that had been there for 40 years. The original dry cleaner’s sign is still up, and the plywood walls hold shelves that are meant to look like upside-down clothes hangers.

No matter your level of cynicism, it’s hard to resist the sanctuary that is an Aesop store. When you shop there, you will be greeted by an employee who will offer assistance in a soothing voice without being pushy. He will wash your hands in the tastefully appointed sink with a well-designed faucet, then apply a balm afterwards. He will give you packets of product samples with your purchase, thoughtfully chosen based on your skin type, which he has already ascertained because he has not wasted time talking to you about how cloudy it is outside. Your purchases are then all packaged up in a cream-colored drawstring muslin bag that you tell yourself you will surely use to store something special in and not just toss on the floor of your closet.

The distinctive bottles add to the allure. The dark amber glass is a signature of the brand, and not a mere design element. “Amber does filter out a lot of light so you are able to preserve the quality of the product [unlike] in clear [glass]. And glass is a much more inert material than plastics,” explains Forbes, meaning it won’t react with the product’s ingredients, though some products that are used in the shower have to be housed in plastic now for safety reasons.

That striking label came from a pragmatic place as well. Most Aesop products don’t come with any outside box packaging, so all the information needs to fit on the label. Forbes says the alternating black and white lines help to break up the text to make it easier to read.

Recently, the company’s facade was dented a bit by an intrusion from the real world. Aesop’s stores and packaging often feature quotes from famous people; Paphitis once only half-jokingly called himself the “director of quote-sourcing.” A Thomas Jefferson quote in a store recently received a few customer complaints, including a tweet that said: “Maybe don’t use this quote from someone who raped their slaves.” Aesop responded immediately on Twitter that it would remove the quote from all stores. “Aesop frequently chooses quotes from historical or literary figures to inspire our customers or highlight key attributes of our products. We recently used a quote in store and realized the insensitive nature of its inclusion, and have since removed it from all stores,” Forbes said in a statement to Racked.

With the exception of that post and a few scattered tweets about its new products, Aesop’s Twitter feed reads like NPR. It discusses podcasts, books, and pop culture moments like The Handmaid’s Tale. It has a literary blog on its site. In addition to the commercial properties it works with, Aesop also recently partnered with the Neutra VDL house in LA when it launched its home scent sprays.

What could seem massively pretentious for any other brand for some reason doesn’t when Aesop does it. Or perhaps it’s just accessible pretentiousness. Either way, Aesop brilliantly taps into that piece of us that needs the pleasure of using bougie $39 hand soap.

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