Likeness doesn't only apply to owners and their dogs, but also to companies and the people that run it. Case in point? Melbourne-based Aesop is known for its sleek, no-frills amber packaging, beautiful products and a fascination with the arts. When we met Suzanne Santos, one half of the duo instrumental in the founding and growth of the company, who is now the general manager of retail and customer service, it felt almost as if like we finally were able to put two and two together.
This wise woman came alongside founder Dennis Paphitis during Aesop's inception in 1987, and has seen the company go from strength to strength and cast its net in 43 countries worldwide. Santos moves with a tranquil air, is powerfully articulate and communicates in considerate, measured tones. When she speaks, she is astute and carries with her an inspiring wealth of information, a passion for literature and culture, and a sharp-wittedness that jolts you to attention. Many times during the conversation, it seemed as if she had more questions for us than the other way around.
Sitting next to her during dinner at Aesop's press event in Sydney, we learnt quickly that she is as no-nonsense as she is kind-hearted. She recoiled upon hearing that someone at the table paid $2,500 for a dog. "Why wouldn't you adopt one from the shelter?" she exclaimed, so matter-of-factly that everyone else could only chuckle politely. At the end of the evening, she requested for all the leftover food to be packed into takeaway boxes. "There are so many people on the street that we could give this to," she says emphatically. "We must give it away."
Now we have Santos, back the next day at Aesop's headquarters in the eclectic neighbourhood of Fitzroy in Melbourne — revealing the true ethos behind Aesop, the extraordinary journey she's had with them and what life might be like when that part is over.
Has the vision for Aesop changed since it started out 28 years ago?
No, it hasn't. Well, first of all, there wasn't a vision. There were products that were a response to what was possible. Back then, what was in the market was just appalling, and many of those things have not changed. It was about heavily fragranced, chemically charged and highly coloured products, and none of these things were serving the customer. You don't need artificial colouring or artificial fragrance. We have remained within our value system... let's take our Post Poo Drops, for example. What was then available on a global level was absolutely revolting and there was a purpose for that product — which was that it could be done magnificently better. So we did, and whatever is touched by us is touched with that in mind.
Aesop has always been conscious about lifestyle choices. Do you think most of your customers believe in it because they have the same connection with culture and art, or are happy buying it because they genuinely love what it does for the skin?
If someone walks in and they find a place in our stores with our staff and products, we hope they become attached. They are our genuine customers. There's a lot of choice, yet they have stuck with us despite all the advertising and promises of youth out there, which aren't on our agenda. I don't think I can say more sincerely that if someone has made that journey into our company, that's wonderful and we are grateful.
What about that element of opportunity to engage with other aspects of the world?
Whether it's about design, architecture, literature or food and wine; and whether it's through the website, the Fabulist, the films or sponsorships that we have-that's for you. If that's why some people are deeply engaged with us and if that opens a window or a door for you, that's just fantastic. I would say to anyone who is reading this article: Go online and look at what is there. You don't have to feel like you have to bury yourself in the whole thing but look at what's created because it's there for that moment's pleasure, that lingering education and because they are incredible skills by remarkable people. It's worth it. Read the newsletter, watch the film or whatever part interests you, because whether it's your 10 minutes or an ongoing life interest, it's there to give back. It's about giving back; it's not anything more.
What's the riskiest decision you've made that turned out to be a big success?
Many things we have done, that are now part and parcel of what we do, would surprise people. As we are defined, it is probably pretty risky when you think about it. To not offer any promises, to not discount, to not advertise, the whole being of the company... If you put it on a course for how to create a successful company, you'd probably define it as a rather big risk. But it never felt that way, it's never felt anything but very reassuring — and I'm not saying it in an arrogant way — but there's always someone who got it.
How do you decide what products to create at each point in time?
There's no path nor is there a blueprint. There's no "do this, this and this and end up with this." Aesop's products are born out of real purpose. We don't make variations for the sake of it, we don't invent product categories that people need so we can launch it; in fact, we don't even launch new products based on the time of year or the fact that you need new products. As such, there will be an end to how many skincare products we make. Maybe we will tweak formulations as new ingredients come but are we going to make more for the sake of it? No.
Is there a particular product that you hold closely to your heart because of the story behind how it came about?
For a period of time, we could not sell our Fabulous Face Oil because oil was associated with baby oil and people remembered the outreach of Johnson & Johnson. They had memory of that viscosity and it wasn't a pleasant memory to remember on their face. That really frustrated me because if you have combination skin, our Fabulous Face Oil is an amazing product as it decongests your skin and is a fantastic blending product to wear at night. So, what did I do? I know it's wrong, it's so wrong — but I put my finger over the word 'Oil' on the label and just called it 'Fabulous Face'. I demonstrated it to people as I was selling it and for the whole time till I put it in the bag, I would not tell them it was oil. Instead, I went on about the amazing ingredients in it, and how and where we get our jasmine and ylang ylang. Now our Fabulous Face Oil is cherished, but at that time, you would not have said the same.
What drives your passion for Aesop?
It is impossible not to be passionate in a company like this. You will definitely be affected when you work for someone like Dennis, and now Michael O'Keefe (Aesop's current CEO), as well as our huge team that works so tirelessly and enthusiastically. It has been an incredible life and a very remarkable experience to travel through.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
To be honest, I don't take a lot of holidays and I don't need a lot around me to be happy. I don't want that to sound like a deep, philosophical, individual comment — it's not meant to be that — but it's the truth. I have enjoyed incredible opportunities through Aesop so I am truly delighted to just be on a beautiful beach in Australia, to cook for friends and family, to garden and to read. I don't take those things lightly nor do I take them for granted. The older I get, I think about what others don't have versus what we have. Today at the airport, I saw this magazine that read 'Luxury Holidays' and I thought, luxury holidays? Having a holiday is a luxury. It should be titled, "If you're lucky enough to have a holiday, here's a place you can go!" I understand that there are breathtaking destinations and people who have jobs through that. It grows that particular society and that is good. But from my perspective, I also am really happy without that. If I could take a road trip, I would road trip wherever and stop at daggy hotels along the way and I would be more than content.
What's next for you when the time comes for you to leave Aesop?
It has been a fulfilling life. There is a lot that I want to do, but in the context of employment, when this part finishes, it will be about spending time in a different capacity. I need to volunteer and find the right place to do it. In my heart, it would be in that area around disability and age because they aren't areas people are focusing on. They need labour and people who can talk and read to them, as well as help to clean. My mind has been drifting that way, to a place where I can be helpful to others.