An interview with Spa Esprit's Cynthia Chua on urban farming and her new Farm to Beauty brand

An interview with Spa Esprit's Cynthia Chua on urban farming and her new Farm to Beauty brand

Back to your roots

Text: Renée Batchelor

A pioneer in everything from introducing waxing to expanding our gastronomical palette, Spa Esprit CEO Cynthia Chua wants us to consider the viability of urban farming, not just for food but for beauty ingredients too

Meeting Cynthia Chua in person is certainly inspiring. Not only has Chua, under her The Spa Esprit group changed the face of lifestyle and beauty in Singapore, her relentless drive to constantly innnovate has meant some of the most interesting concepts that our tiny island has seen. From waxing parlours and brow joints dotted all over Singapore, to introducing Singaporeans to experimental cuisine at The Tippling Club and Argentinian fare at Bochinche, the group has certainly expanded our collective horizons. Now Chua is doing the seemingly impossible, working in partnership with Raffles City Shopping Centre and Edible Gardens to cultivate and hand harvest plants and herbs in a secret, rooftop farm stretching 10,000 square feet on top of Raffles City. 

Tucked away on the seventh floor, more than 1,600 herbs and plants across 16 varieties have been grown, harvested and blended into beauty products. We visited the farm at sundown and it was pretty magnificent to see plants thriving within our urban landscape. Some of the plants that feature heavily in the first two products were aloe vera and calendula — these products will available at Strip and Browhaus outlets from this month. We spoke to Chua and Edible Gardens' Bjorn Low, a farmer and biodynamic agriculture specialist to find out more about the sustainability and obstacles of taking on such a project.

Cynthia Chua
Why is this concept interesting or relevant to you?
Cynthia Chua: The farm to beauty concept is very relevant to us because we have ventured into food. Our latest project was Open Farm Community. It was about growing our relationship with food and understanding a little bit more about agriculture.  I came from an aromatherapy background, so if you add in our beauty background, the love of nature, our passion for innovation, and then the agricultural aspect part, you'll understand that it's a very natural extension into beauty for us.

Why is it always farm to table that people talk about? When you talk about agriculture, you hear about food, but cultivating for beauty product seems so segregated. You don't see people making products these days. It's very natural for us to marry all these together. We've always wanted to make our own cream and products, and the opportunity finally came. For me the important thing was how I could constantly create a different experience for my beauty customers. I keep wanting to perfect that experience — what's the touch point that will make my customer go "Wow, this is interesting." Now I'm propagating farming and growing.

My other dream is to create a range of toiletries for Singapore Airlines. I think that it's the little things always come together. I travel all the time and every time I look at the products, they carry L'Occitane. Why is Singapore Airline using L'Occitane, when we're not French? I feel like over the years, Singaporeans have become very proud of their nationality. So I think we're very nationalistic and when we travel, we think of how we can bring interesting ideas and concepts back and fill a gap. A lot of ideas are derivative, and then it becomes creativity because you put it together and it becomes yours. I think with farm to table, the idea was sparked because I started interacting with farms and toying with the idea of distilling products. I started to dream about making toiletries and eventually maybe even a Singapore fragrance. 

In terms of the climate, is there any limitations to cultivating plants and herbs? And what difficulties do you run into?
Bjorn Low: When we started the garden, we needed to produce quite a lot of volume to launch products it in all the stores. The approach we went with was to select things that were calming and had healing properties. The monocultural approach was a little bit wrong though because we suffered massive pest attacks, so we tweaked the process as we moved along to create a more biodiverse environment. We started to look at more local herbs that has been forgotten and tried to see how we could actually bring them to life again.

So for example, when we first started cultivating calendula — it's a very European-centric flower and no one knew that you could grow it in —  we managed to grow it on the rooftop. But as they are not native, they do face a lot of problems. With humidity, there is always fungal problems. We had to work through a few rounds and we slowed down the growing of calendula, because we have amassed quite a bit of flowers, just to let the ground rest for awhile, let the pests to go away... so it's a bit like crop rotation. The rooftop is always a very challenging environment as it's very hot, there's a wind tunnel effect and it's generally inhospitable.

Spa Esprit rooftop garden
Why do you choose to work with Raffles City Shopping Centre?
CC: One of the very interesting thing is there's a lot social elements to it. These are rooftops that are not being used, so the product is really about supporting local. You get a product that is farm to beauty and it is grown up in a roof garden. I chose Raffles City because I've got a very good relationship with them, they love our brand and they saw what we had done with Wheelock Place, where we grew edible blossoms for The Tippling Club. My first reaction was, "Are you sure you can grow things on the rooftop? I thought they were for aircon compressors!" Raffles City wanted whatever was cultivated to have a relevance to the retail store. That was really interesting for us because I wanted to grow herbs, but when I have a vision, my team will have to look into it, to see if it can actually be a reality.  I feel like you can expand your consumers' experience because your brand is not just about coming and getting a wax, it's about an entire experience of discovery. I like having a very farfetched vision and then being able to do it. Of course, the luck is also meeting the right people that are capable of putting these ideas these together. So it's always little ideas in my head, and when you meet the right people, things coming into formation.

BL: The beauty with a lot of these places is that they are required by URA to have rooftop gardens but lots of times it's just about growing ornamental plants. So for us, it's was easy to change the planting methods and grow certain plants. And we were able to make it productive.

Could you share some of the useful herbs or plants that you're growing that are actually going into the beauty products? What are the properties that they have or the skincare uses that you found for these plants?
CC: Calendula is a well-known skin healer — it's extremely calming, anti-inflammatory and soothing. It's almost like a super plant for skin allergies. It's very good for diaper rash as well. We also put lavender and geranium oil in it to kind of boost it,  so you get a nice, natural essential oil fragrance together with it. These ingredients work well together because geranium is very balancing and lavender is extremely healing for the skin and it can be used for all skin types.

If you like homemade kitchen cosmetics, it's always calendula that will be used. Calendula that is grown on the rooftop in Singapore straight in this mall? To me, that is the excitement. It wasn't something that people are unfamiliar with. The key factor is that it is grown here, it is hand-harvested, and now it's made into a product that is relevant.

BL: A lot of them are used as teas, like the Calm Down teas we produce. There's also Mexican tarragon, which is a narcotic. We talked about the potential of the garden, we wanted something that was calming — that put people at ease before they do their treatment. So we identified things like passiflora, which is the passion fruit flower. It is purple and has calming effects. Lemon balm tree, which we grow on the rooftop as well, has a soothing and calming effect. That was the direction we took. We started to distill oils like tarragon essential oil ourselves. It was mostly calming items that we picked for a start. We tried a lot more, but some couldn't work. These are the ones we had certain consistency of harvest and which were not too pest-ridden. We harvest them daily, we pick them and we dry them. This is done at Enabling Village at Redhill, which is a village for people with disabilities. So we have autistic adults harvesting and being involved in the entire post-harvest processing — tying up and drying the plants. We do all the distillation of products there also, as it has to be quite a clean environment with a commercial kitchen.

Aloe vera
Why does Farm to Beauty this go beyond a trend or a fad for you?
CC: When we pitched Open Farm Community, I never marketed it as farm to table, because I understand what that term means. I think the idea I wanted to communcate is 'growing is possible'. It's a lot more powerful, and has always been about supporting local and supporting growing. I feel like if the idea is extended to everybody, then everybody contributes to the effort. Then we can have a growing city, and that is more sustainable. Rather than selling that farm to table concept, if you're a family, and you love sweet potatoes leaves, you can grow enough for that dish. This is urban land and it may not be economical to use it for agriculture, but we are trying to tell people that growing is still possible, if you have a little space at the back garden that you can use. Growing also connects you to nature and  instills a relationship with your food and a curiosity about where it comes from.

With this line, we wanted to do things that are possible and not to have 25 products. It took us so long just to come up with two products. We were supposed to launch last year, but our first batch of calendula was contaminated and it took us a long time to amass enough for use. 

Could you tell me about the two products you're launching under Farm to Beauty?
CC: We wanted to use the Om, Calendula! Calming Cream for Browhaus. Calendula is very good as anti-inflammatory product, especially post-threading and tweezing. With whatever we've grown, we are able to produce about 1,600 bottles. That was just 10-20 per cent of the garden being used. I feel like if this become sellable and people love the story, then we can acquire bigger rooftops. There are people who want to give space us and this is when we grow and we can perfect it. More wasted land can be used, in terms of promoting farming and growing.

More young farmers can come aboard and we can pay them. A lot of people want to join Edible Gardens, but we've got no money to pay them. Where is the money going to come from? I feel the power is getting the message across. Because we are industry leaders in innovation, more people would start to look at farm to beauty, experimenting with more herbs and discovering more products. We are good at starting the buzz. The cream is from Australia, but the active ingredient, calendula, is taken from the garden and extracted.

The other product is A Cool Aloe Cooling Gel which is also really good. Aloe vera gel is like a thirst quencher, it's very moisturising, soothing and excellent for sunburnt skin and as a post-wax treatment. The texture is very invigorating, because it's minty. After a Brazilian wax, we use it as overnight mask. So we sell this as a sleeping pack, because you never go for a skin peel without putting moisturising product on after,we wanted to educate people about complete Brazilian care. A day after your waxing, you go put a layer before you go to bed and it's like an overnight mask.

Farm to Beauty Om, Calendula! Calming Cream, $35 at Browhaus outlets and A Cool Aloe Cooling Gel, $35 at Strip outlets
BL: We're just scratching the surface of what's possible — the growing and looking at the local type herbs that have been forgotten, that may have medicinal qualities. Calendula is a western herb, there are a lot of similar flowers and plants that have anti-microbial benefits as well, but as this point of time, we just don't know how extract them. That would be the next journey: to find ways way to extract them and add it to the calendula cream for added effects, so there is a stronger local 'story' to it.

What do you think is the next step?
CC: I feel like if you can show this viability, we can start a movement. It's almost like a lost art and tradition — growing your own plants for beauty and healing — so we wanted to be able to bring that back. There's a lot of momentum, but the commercial viability has to be there. If we keep on doing this, we would be able to nail it rather than keep saying it's not possible. If the crops die, maybe the method is not wrong, but the crop is wrong. So you just have to keep on trying. That is our attitude.

But what's interesting is always creating a platform to lure other people. By creating that industry buzz we can hopefully help create a boom. Our contribution is to be able to do that. It's extending a different dimension to your beauty experience. That you can come to Strip and use a calendula cream that is grown from the garden — what is put on your skin is a slice of Singapore's garden. That's very beautiful to me and is something that money cannot buy.