One of my favourite Aesop fables as a child was the tale of The Crow and the Pitcher. As the story goes, the black bird comes across a tall pitcher with a little water in it. Longing for refreshment, he drops several pebbles into the pitcher to raise the water level, eventually succeeding at quenching his thirst. The bedtime story popped into my head while visiting the New York office of Australian cult skincare brand Aesop, named for the Greek storyteller. Shortly after I arrive, Suzanne Santos, the company’s founding associate, is gently washing my right hand in a sink, before she applies Seeking Silence Facial Hydrator ($79), a new moisturizer designed for sensitive skin, which has a lightweight, almost watery texture. My dehydrated skin drinks it up. 

A trip to the sink, or basin, as Santos refers to it, is an integral part of the Aesop experience. Santos became the brand’s first employee, when founder and hairstylist Dennis Paphitis hired her in his Melbourne salon in the 1980s. It was her idea to take the stainless steel bowl the salon’s manicurist had been using to soak clients’ hands – before applying the essential oils and balm Paphitis had developed – to department stores for demonstrations in order for customers to really experience the then fledgling brand. That’s why there is a basin in every Aesop store.  

Suzanne Santos

As Santos and I talk about the company’s history, on the table in front of us sits carefully arranged bowls of candied ginger, glossy macadamia nuts, and a chamomile and citrus cake from Rose Bakery, one of Aesop’s first European amenity clients. It’s just one of many on an exclusive list that includes boutique hotels like Gramercy Park Hotel, and restaurants like Buvette that are vetted before the brand will allow its Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash to be in their bathrooms. The hand soap has been a gateway Aesop product for many, and has thankfully replaced Crocodile Dundee as one of the most widely known Aussie exports. Other Aesop heroes include the fast-absorbing hand balms, and the Parsley Seed collection. There’s also a shampoo for pets, a mouthwash, and a toothpaste made with wasabi and cardamom. Like all Aesop products, Santos says they were developed out of customer need rather than keeping up with the pace of their competitors, and there’s no budget restrictions during the formulation phase – whatever ingredients work best are included. 

In many ways, Santos personifies the brand known for its minimal apothecary-style packaging, as well as its calming, fragrant and design-forward boutiques, imagined by local artists and architects (and occasionally filmmakers: Luca Guadagnino director of Call Me By Your Name helped blueprint the first Rome outpost). Everything about Santos, from the white button down she’s wearing and her immaculate, polish-free manicure, to the quiet, measured way she speaks, feels luxuriously sparse, mindful and forward thinking.

So, how much of Aesop is Santos? “I can’t take any credit for the culture,” she says, attributing it all to Paphitis. But she certainly soaked up plenty of his vision for creating a different type of beauty company. “I would say it’s impossible to work with somebody for 32 years, and not be touched by that, whatever that individual empowers that individuals be.”

Hannah Robson’s woven art

These days Santos is the keeper of that culture, especially since Aesop was purchased by Brazilian cosmetic company Natura & Co. She routinely travels to new store openings and visits Aesop’s more than 200 international locations, including several in Canada. That frequent flying between different environments and climates is why she recently personified the very problem that Seeking Silence aims to solve for sensitive skin: after getting off the plane for her New York visit, her skin started peeling. As an antidote, she applied the moisturizer, infused with squalane, ginger root, and algae extracts. At our meeting a day later, her makeup-free complexion is glowing. 

To illustrate the transformation Seeking Silence can have on sensitive skin types, the brand pulled another signature move: it commissioned an artist to create a bespoke piece. In this case, Santos says they asked London-based art school grad Hannah Robson to create a textural representation of the product’s benefits, displayed as three woven pieces hanging from the ceiling, that will be showcased in various stores.

“One of the burdens that people face with the environment is this terrible inflammation born from reaction,” says Santos, pointing to the first piece in the installation that represents symptoms like redness, itchiness and discomfort. The middle piece, she explains, is about the “tension and the effect of that causes.” And then the final panel, a much smoother and softer texture, shows the results. In other words, “what your hand feels now,” says Santos, nodding to the one she massaged earlier that is no longer parched.