When she travels to Venice for work, the French hairstylist Odile Gilbert always stops at one shop in particular: Santa Maria Novella, the Old World apothecary founded by Dominican friars in Florence in 1221. Today, it’s her favourite place to pick up “things that don’t really exist anymore,” she says, such as Sali di Lavanda (US$18), lavender smelling salts, and Acqua di Colonia Acqua di Sicilia (US$125), a light bitter orange cologne she buys for her boyfriend. The brand’s distinctive packaging, Gilbert says, is like no other. The frosted glass bottles, ornately decorated tins and ceramic pots — filled with everything from rose-water toner to potpourri — are faithful to the company’s original vessels and emblazoned with its official seal (dated 1612, when the Dominican monks started selling their remedies to the public). “The design is beautiful and not at all pretentious,” says Gilbert, who often comes in after shoots to buy presents. “I love the fact that it’s not something new, but it’s been tried and true for years, in the old-fashioned way.”
Many such centuries-old brands have stayed in style since their founding. But lately their time-tested formulas and decorative packaging have felt especially appealing, offering a refreshing alternative to the minimalist aesthetic — all-white and blush-coloured bottles and labels with sans-serif typefaces — that is currently popular among beauty brands. Products from a bygone era suddenly seem to have more personality, argue the disciples of these storied brands, who also prefer the companies’ herbal-based, medicinal-like formulas.
“I love the aesthetic of the packaging,” says Tina Seidenfaden Busck, the Denmark-based interior decorator and founder of the Apartment, who has been loyal to Santa Maria Novella for “many years,” and uses the Acqua di Gigli (US$78) body tonic every day. “It’s so nostalgic and reminds me of my grandmother,” she says. Other well-known brands cultivate a similarly reassuring vibe with their Old World aesthetic, including L’Officine Universelle Buly, a brand founded on the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris in 1803 that developed a following with perfumes and “scented vinegars,” fragrant lotions with therapeutic effects. The French hairstylist Christophe Robin, who calls himself a “flea market, vintage fanatic,” says he is never without the brand’s Pommade Concrète (about US$35), a chamomile-infused, shea-butter hand-and-foot salve, which comes in a bright blue metal tube decorated with a delicate drawing of a hand emerging from an antique lace sleeve.
Buly’s current owners, Victoire de Taillac and Ramdane Touhami, relaunched the brand five years ago and often consult archival beauty catalogs to find ideas for the brand’s 19th-century-inspired packaging. Recently, they acquired a small printing press in Switzerland to create antique-style letterpress labels. In 2017, the duo also revived another Parisian heritage brand, Briard, which de Taillac says was first established under the ancien régime in 1787 by the Briard family, who prepared eaux de toilette, creams and elixirs “in small quantities, in line with the traditional olfactory customs.” Today, Briard’s bar soaps, scented with violet, mimosa, rosemary and other plants, are etched with the silhouette of Pope Leo XIII, the head of the Catholic church during the Victorian era, while its scented Soap Sheets (US$10) are wrapped in replicas of the company’s original beauty advertisements. There’s a sense of discovery with brands that have a story to tell, says de Taillac. “People are surprised — they’ve never seen something like that before.”
Lately, modern beauty brands have also mined the past for inspiration. Gucci’s new perfume collection, the Alchemist’s Garden, features preparations based on traditional methods of distilling plants and flowers as well as lacquered glass bottles, stamped with gold lettering and romantic floral motifs, similar to the type found in old-fashioned apothecaries. Commenting on the collection, Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, said, “It was fun to work like old perfumery experts, with scents and essences like alchemy” and “to tell the story of atmospheres, spells.”
Such a nostalgic approach is in stark contrast to the pared-down aesthetic and high-tech ingredients of many modern beauty brands. Instead, brands from centuries ago seem to satisfy a longing for simpler times, when a splash of menthol toner or pat of calendula cream could fix whatever ailed you. There’s a sense of preserving tradition in returning to trusted remedies that have been passed down through generations. As Gilbert says of her devotion to Santa Maria Novella, it’s more than just a part of her beauty routine, “it’s a way of living.”
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