If you follow this blog/my Instagram, it will be no secret to you that I am a huge fan of In Fiore. I am fascinated by the brand’s ethos of self-love and luxury and by the alchemic command over nature’s gifts exhibited by its brilliant founder and creator Julie Elliott. I am also an unrepentant Japanophile. Imagine then my glee, when I learned that Julie and In Fiore (which is a huge success in Japan) have partnered with a major Japanese cosmetic conglomerate to create a new line of products incorporating uber-sophisticated scientific know-how and Julie’s unwavering standards and unparalleled plant wisdom. Although the line will initially be exclusive to the Asian market, it will eventually make its way to the US. Now here is the exciting part: I have long dreamed of picking Julie’s brain and I got that opportunity during a recent interview.
One of the things that always mystified me about In Fiore was its cult status. Not because it doesn’t have all of the hallmarks of a cult brand – sophistication, cool, celebrity following, adulation within the industry – but because I would have expected it to be at the top of the list of marquee green beauty brands. After all, not only is it a fabulous and elegant brand, but it has been around longer than virtually any other high-end green beauty brand, having launched in 1999, and the first to formulate products using only oils and absolutes. In a way, In Fiore was a victim of its own innovation: the line got a lot of press early on, but the market wasn’t yet ready for a luxury, all-natural brand. People thought that using oils and balms as skincare was crazy and that Julie was a weird, San Francisco hippie, telling her that what she was doing was nice, but “too earthy”.
It’s a little crazy to think just how much the market has changed. Fifteen years later, the green beauty industry is booming, yet In Fiore has remained somewhat under the radar: around for too long to be the “next big thing”, yet without the familiarity of brands like Kahina or Tata Harper. At least that’s how things stand in the US. Because this quintessentially San Francisco brand is Big in Japan.
At first, I was surprised to learn of the brand’s popularity in the Land of the Rising Sun, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The Japanese value esthetics and beauty and have a reverence for ritual and an appreciation of natural, traditional ingredients. When it comes to skincare, Japanese consumers embrace oil cleansing, lymphatic massage and plant oils: all things In Fiore excels in. Although all of the line is a hit (sold in a number of retailers, including Barneys), one of its biggest sellers is the Calendula oil. The medicinal and skincare benefits of calendula are well documented, but the beautiful and delicious-smelling Calendula oil amps up its power with a host of exquisite and powerful ingredients like carrot oil, marula oil, sea buckthorn, rose hip extract, neroli and xanthophyll, a natural antioxidant derived from marigold petals. Since I first tried it, Calendula has quickly risen to the top of my favorite face oils and I can attest to its almost magical skin calming, rejuvenating and brightening powers.
Still, the Japanese are also known for innovation and in order to thrive in the market, In Fiore had to build on its heritage to create something new and special. And that’s where the Japanese skincare brand Albion and its parent company, KOSÉ, come in. Founded 70 years ago (Albion was founded 60 years ago) and still family-owned, KOSÉ is now one of the biggest cosmetic conglomerates in the world, either owning or manufacturing products for such brands as Rimmel, Tarte, Anna Sui, Paul & Joe, Jill Stuart and scores of others. Both KOSÉ and Albion have built their reputation on high-tech research and innovation: as just one example, KOSÉ were the first to create what is now known as a serum.
At the same time, the company has a reverence for tradition and natural ingredients, so much so that in 2014, in collaboration with the Tokyo University of Agriculture, Albion established the Institute of Traditional Plants in Sri Lanka in order to “conduct research into indigenous and traditional herbs and medicinal methods, in order to modernize the field [of Ayurveda] in a timely fashion”. The Institute includes a farm, which will provide plants for In Fiore and Albion also started a farm dedicated to growing In Fiore ingredients. The farm is a part of a UNESCO-protected site that includes a virgin beech wood forest and will grow the calendula for In Fiore’s star product, as well as other herbs. There are plans for a third farm in Madagascar: the goal is to produce as many of the ingredients as possible “in-house’ to ensure quality control and not be dependent on the global supply. After all, when powerhouses like Chanel get first dibs on the best rose and neroli harvests, it can be almost impossible for an indie brand to source the best possible ingredients. It looks like this shouldn’t be a problem for In Fiore: according to Julie, she was told to “make a list of what she wants to grow”. Sounds like a formulator’s dream!
The marriage of traditional and high-tech embraced by Albion was exactly what Julie needed in order to turn In Fiore into the ultimate prestige, all-natural brand, yet the partnership wasn’t without its risks. There is no doubt that more often than not, an alliance of an indie brand with a multinational conglomerate can lead to unwelcome compromises, a loss of vision and a decline in quality of the products themselves and the ingredients used to create them. It took someone with Julie’s integrity and commitment to ensure that the new In Fiore lineup remained as steadfastly natural and clean as it has always been, but she was also lucky to find a partner who admired her work and did not want to turn it into something different and contrary to the founder’s vision. At the same time, the difference in approaches meant that the partners pushed each other out of their comfort zones and inspired each other not only to create sophisticated products, but to consider alternative that may one day revolutionize the beauty industry.
Using the technologies developed by Albion, Julie created some truly special products that combine the magic of plants with such high-tech methods as double encapsulation and multiple emulsions. A particular standout among these products is the Botanical Water: a product that feels as light as, well, water, but is as hydrating as a lotion. It provides enough hydration to be sufficient for those seeking a weightless moisturizer and is a dream for someone like me, who requires all the hydration I can get. Botanical waters have existed in Japan for some time, but they are completely unknown in the West – it’s the product I am most excited to experience, although the entire line sounds like an absolute dream.
Of course, sometimes a compromise between science and nature is simply impossible. One example is the Perfect Cleanser That Wasn’t. During the product development phase, Albion scientists presented Julie with what she describes as the perfect cleanser. Coming from the woman who elevated cleansing to art, this is the highest possible praise. There was, however, just one problem with the cleanser: it used mineral oil as its base. It turns out that certain chemical properties of mineral oil make it not only ideal for creating the Perfect Cleanser – it’s impossible to make one without. It’s a testament to Julie’s integrity and commitment to her vision that she sent the Perfect Cleanser to the scrap heap. This sad tale does, however, have a silver lining: Julie challenged the Albion scientists to create a natural alternative to mineral oil and, knowing how passionate and persuasive she is, I have a feeling this isn’t the last we hear of the Perfect Cleanser.
The Japanese branch of In Fiore won’t just be repackaged with new labels: rather, it’s an almost entirely new line. Unlike the existing In Fiore lineup, the new products will be based on homeopathic principles and will have a major focus on the product delivery system. The Japanese want to use Japanese products and the new line will definitely be Japanese. Luckily for us, the line will eventually be available in the US. Aside from the Botanical Waters, I am really looking forward to the new cream, since the currently existing Crème de Fleur is one of my all-time favorite creams, with a luscious texture rivaling any conventional cream.
The In Fiore lineup is already almost dizzyingly broad. This is one of the reasons the line isn’t carried in more stores: it’s simply too diverse and requires too much education and training for the traditional retailers to sell effectively. Yet, Julie Elliott’s creativity and imagination are too irrepressible and she already has new products in mind. Currently in the pipeline are a travel version of the glorious eye treatment Vis Claire with a cooling roll-on applicator, as well as the Lymph oil in a rollerball (it’s already an incredible product for stimulating lymphatic flow and this would make it even more amazing). Julie also told me about the magical sounding Japanese Temple Water, created to purify the environment and housed in a credit card-sized container – the absolute perfect thing for improving air quality on airplanes and making soulless hotel rooms feel like a mountaintop sanctuary.
My interview with Julie lasted for three hours and only ended because it was 10pm and I had to leave the office. I don’t want to make this post unmanageably long, but feel it imperative to share more of Julie’s world and wisdom. So I am going to end with a little Q&A to cover a few more things Julie and I talked about.
HH: Before I tried the products and experienced how well they work, I was concerned about the use of alcohol as one of the ingredients. Could you explain your reason for using it?
JE: One of the biggest challenges of formulating natural products is preservation – it’s the bane of our existence. It’s an even bigger issue in Japan, where there are rigorous standards for ingredient stability. I decided to use our alcohol tincture as both a preservation system and a way to incorporate active botanicals. The percentage of alcohol in our plant tincture is too low to cause irritation (Ed.: it’s worth noting that In Fiore uses organic grape alcohol. I have seen the argument that organic grape alcohol is actually much better for the skin than ethanol, which is usually derived from wheat, corn or sugar and is much cheaper) and it helps to preserve the products.
HH: There is a lot of confusion about the correct order of application for products – sometime it seems that there are as many opinions as there are experts and formulators. What is your view?
JE: I believe that oil should be applied first. Plant oils that I use for In Fiore are basically concentrated actives and applying them directly to the skin has the most benefit. It should be followed by the toner, which helps the oils absorbed and gets delivered deeper into the skin, then serums, creams and balms, with the sunscreen always coming last. (Ed: Check out this helpful primer from the In Fiore blog for more details).
HH: Since there are so many products in the In Fiore lineup, what are the absolute must haves? Also, what are your favorite products?
JE: There are 9 core products in the ideal In Fiore routine: the two cleansers comprising the 4-2-4 method, the Lustra oil and the Treate cream cleanser; the Fleur Vibrante balm (Ed: having used it extensively in the last few months I can testify to the fact that this balm is almost magically healing, brightening and softening. The fact that it smells absolutely heavenly is just a bonus); the Vitale toner; either the Calme, Calendula or Comfrey oil (or, ideally, all three), the Complexe de Fleur serum and the Crème de Fleur. My favorites are the Calme oil, the Botanical Waters and the new cream.
If you haven’t yet discovered the wonders of In Fiore, I cannot recommend it highly enough. This line is the perfect example of how a reverence for nature’s gift, an alchemical talent and a passion for research combine to create something truly spectacular and effective. And if you are an In Fiore fan already, then I must apologize: the new products are, for now, only going to be available in Asia. If we are lucky, Julie will soon bring her magical waters and other treats to the West. I, for one, can’t wait!
Disclaimer: The Calendula oil and Fleur Vibrante balm were sent to me by In Fiore. I have purchased all of the other In Fiore products I reviewed before and will continue to do so because they are magical and amazing. No affiliate links.