Founders of Fresh, Ms Alina Roytberg and Mr Lev Glazman. The brand, which started as a multi-brand beauty store, has more than 90 stores and counters worldwide today.
Imagine this. Monks wearing flowing white robes in a mediaeval monastery, stirring pots of steaming waxes, oils and essences to make jars of anti-ageing beauty creams.
The monks are tucked away in a beautiful white-washed monastery in the Czech Republic. They spend four hours each day – when they are not doing their chores or praying – whipping up jars of anti-wrinkle concoctions for a luxury beauty label.
The connection between monks in a mediaeval church and a high-end beauty cream for modern women? The married founders of American brand Fresh, Mr Lev Glazman and Ms Alina Roytberg.
They were in Singapore last month for a market visit. Fresh launched its first stand-alone boutique here at Ion Orchard in February.
About a decade ago, the pair discovered the formula for the first cold cream by renowned Greek physician Claude Galien in a book of ancient beauty remedies that their French chemist friend had shared with them.
Based on the original formula that contains beeswax and rose water, they added meadowfoam seed oil, vitamin E and camomile wax to create their own version. They christened it Creme Ancienne ($456 for 100ml). The cream was nourishing, and the texture, perfect.
The only problem was that it had to be handmade.
“It is labour intensive, as there are waxes with different melting points in the formula,” says Mr Glazman, 54.
“And the oil has to be mixed in at a certain temperature, or it will be burnt. There is no way we could use machines to do it.”
The monks came into the equation when Mr Glazman wanted to “complete the story”.
“The discovery of the formula, the origins of the cream, something so precious from long ago… we got obsessed with the story,” he shares.
For centuries, monks have been known to create all kinds of remedies. They preserved a lot of knowledge that would not have survived the book-burning years, he says.
Furthermore, monasteries have to sustain themselves and many make jams and honeys, “so it is very much in their DNA to make things”, adds Mr Glazman, who has two daughters.
“It was very important to us to have people who are very dedicated, loyal, and will make the creams with a lot of precision, integrity and respect for the past.”
While there were just four monks producing Creme Ancienne in 2003, there is an army of them working on the cream and two other products in the same line now.
The monks can work only four hours in a day, so sometimes stocks run out; but that is the way it is, he shares.
This respect for the heritage of traditional beauty formulas, while giving them a different spin, makes Fresh stand out in a highly competitive beauty market.
Its other signature lines include the Sugar scrub products – lip, face and body polishes, as well as lip balms – that were inspired by the founders’ grandmothers, who used sugar as a natural antiseptic to heal cuts and scrapes.
And there is the Umbrian Clay series, made with mineral and alkali-rich clay from the small Italian town of Nocera Umbra, famous for the ancient Etruscan tombs nearby.
Through a friend, Mr Glazman and Ms Roytberg discovered the healing properties of the clay that dates back to the sixth century BC. The fine ash-white powder is usually dispensed at Italian herbal pharmacies. The couple then added it into a skin-purifying clay skincare line.
The starting point for the Fresh Sake collection was the Japanese teahouses of yore, where geishas soaked in a bath of sake, lemon slices, persimmons and camellia flowers to detoxify and brighten their skin. Based on this century-old concept, the duo created a bath soak made with 50 per cent sake, ginger root extract, melissa leaf extract, radish root extract, peach extract, apricot kernel, passionflower seed and sesame seed oils.
Prices for Fresh products start from $31 for a lip balm to $456 for a jar of anti-ageing cream.
The brand was founded in South End, Boston, in 1991, as a multi-brand beauty store called Nuts About Beauty.
Mr Glazman was a dental technician obsessed with perfumes and beauty products; the result of growing up in communist Russia where he was deprived of personal grooming luxuries.
The Ukraine-born Ms Roytberg is a fashion design graduate from the Parsons School of Design in New York.
Soon after opening their store, the pair created their first batch of luxuriously perfumed soaps under the Fresh label, wrapped the bars in pastel paper and wire, and sales took off.
Encouraged, they made more bodycare and skincare products.
Fresh did well enough to expand to New York City in 1998. By then, the brand’s natural and wholesome formulas had a cult following. The French luxury conglomerate Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) spotted its potential and bought the company in 2000.
“We weren’t interested in selling the company then, but we liked the idea of having a partner onboard so Fresh had the opportunity to grow,” says Ms Roytberg, 53.
“And we were attracted to the fact that LVMH was a luxury group that manages different brands and respects the creativity of the founders.”
For Mr Glazman, having access to the LVMH labs made him feel like “a kid in a candy shop”.
“We were outgrowing our small lab in France, and needed more resources and access to ingredients that small companies wouldn’t get,” he says.
“So being offered to work within the LVMH lab was a big deal for me, as it helped to take our products to the next level.”
Today, there are more than 90 Fresh stores and counters worldwide; up from 33 in 2013.
The Singapore flagship and Hong Kong stores are on the same launch calendar as North America, one of the brand’s largest markets.
Mr Glazman adds: “The markets in Asia are really blossoming. We’d love to have the whole world enjoy our new products at the same time.
“Singaporeans are very much on the edge of what’s new.”
Fresh products to look out for
Creme Ancienne Soft Cream
$456 for 100ml
A brand new, more lightweight version of the original anti-ageing Creme Ancienne.
This formula is not handmade by monks. Machines are necessary to create the whipped texture. It contains meadowfoam seed oil, echinacea flower extract, vitamin E and camomile wax.
The original Creme Ancienne has a richer and creamier texture.
Rose Face Mask
Made with roses from Isparta, Turkey, cucumber extract, aloe vera gel, an algae extract and green tea to nourish and hydrate skin.
Umbrian Clay Mattifying Mask
It contains the mineral-rich clay from Umbria, Italy, that neutralises acidity, clarifies and purifies the skin.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 1, 2015. For more similar stories, go to http://sph.straitstimes.com/supplements/urban.