The label of fable: tales from Aesop skincare

Many of the stories in cult skincare brand Aesop’s new book have an element of charm that suggests they’ve taken more inspiration from the famous Greek storyteller than just his name. There’s the tale of emptying bagfuls of fallen leaves over the floors of select Aesop stores in autumn, to herald the change in seasons, or the description of the entrance to the Nakameguro store in Tokyo, hand-washed each morning with hot water and eucalyptus oil for the sensorial pleasure of passersby. It’s all true – beautiful photographs by Yutaka Yamamoto, printed full-bleed across the thick, matte pages of the book, prove it – yet these actions seem almost implausibly painstaking and poetic for a company that boasts more than 230 stores and 90 department store counters, as well as employing around 2,300 staff globally. But that’s what makes Aesop so intriguing: somehow this brand with the offbeat, indie mindset has managed to maintain an under-the-radar feel despite being on pretty much everyone’s radar.

Aesop began in 1987 when founder Dennis Paphitis opened his Melbourne hair salon, Emeis, and started blending essential oils into hair products. Trial samples were developed for customers, demand grew and then, in 1989, owing to the phonetic similarity of “Emeis” to a rather more established beauty brand, the nascent company was rechristened Aesop – to gently mock cosmetics brands’ often outlandish claims. Several years ago, Paphitis sold Aesop to Brazilian company Natura Cosmeticos, but he maintains an advisory role.

Having started with four products, Aesop’s range now comprises almost 100, with one Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum sold every nine minutes, and a handwash and hand balm duo a staple in hipster restaurant toilets. Formulations combine both natural and laboratory-made ingredients and are renowned for their lingering herbal scents, with many focusing on elevating banal daily routines into something sensuous. A hand sanitiser smells of cedar, rosemary and mandarin; a toothpaste tastes of anise and spearmint. When I ask Paphitis about prices – the Hand Balm is, in its coveted 500ml size, £70 – he is unperturbed. “Critics are at liberty to use other products, there is no justification required,” he says. “We make exceptional products with great care and attention.”

Aesop certainly marches to the beat of its own drum when it comes to product development, too. While beauty companies generally launch things on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis, Aesop launches them simply when they are ready. The brand was also ahead of the curve with packaging, skipping “useless, wasteful” outer cartons at a time when cellophane-wrapped boxes were standard. The newly green-aware beauty industry is only making the switch now.

The brand’s typographic labels – they use black Helvetica and Optima Medium fonts on amber bottles – have become something of a design phenomenon. “The packaging was never intended to resonate in the way that it has,” he says. “Our aesthetic signature evolved as a simple, utilitarian response to communicating clearly, with minimal visual distractions.”

Incidental it may be, but the packaging is part of the reason for Aesop’s cult status, embellishing its reputation as an arbiter of good taste. I’ve known people to refill their empty Aesop hand wash bottles with cheaper soap once it runs out. While many brands tweak their packaging regularly to keep customers on their toes, there has been a minimal shift over Aesop’s three decades, and the utilitarian aesthetic looks as good today as it did then. Naturally, this has made it a prime target for copycats.