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Ingredient Hunting with a Holistic Skin-Care Expert

By Kari Molvar

 
 

Yael Alkalay, the founder of the New York City-based holistic beauty line Red Flower, scouts for ingredients in the wild fields near Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

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Yael Alkalay, the founder of the holistic beauty brand Red Flower, grew up in southern Massachusetts and returns to the area every summer to gather plants for distillation and experimentation: hibiscus, mint, raspberries, rose hips. Pictured here are freshly picked wild floribunda and Rosa rugosa roses.

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Alkalay has worked with many of her ingredient suppliers since the early years of Red Flower, including Bay End Farm, in Bourne, Massachusetts. The 35-acre organic farm grows 35 different crops, including the beets used in the 10,000 Collection, as well as the lavender and cucumber found in the brand’s Flowers Hold Life line of body washes and lotions.

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As she examines rose hips in an open field in Dartmouth, Mass., Alkalay notes that many plants blossomed late this year. The condensed growing season often produces brighter colours, she explains, and a higher concentration of nutrients in the berries.

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A selection of fresh cucumbers from Bay End Farm. “I prefer to use fewer ingredients with more concentrated nutrients,” Alkalay says of her skin-care philosophy.

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Back in her New Bedford studio, Alkalay spreads out her haul — a mix of local cranberries, rose hips, hibiscus, raspberries and Bay End Farm beets. She’s also picked up wild roses from her family’s 11-acre plot of marshland in Dartmouth, which is “completely uncultivated so you can really see the potential of nature,” she says.

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Alkalay works out of a studio located in a textile and weaving mill. She shares the space with the painter Judith Klein, whose artwork hangs on the wall near Alkalay’s desk, made from a reclaimed hurricane barrier.

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Alkalay jots down potential formulas in her notebook, which she keeps on her desk, surrounded by books and mementos from her travels. Before launching Red Flower, Alkalay lived in Japan for five years and worked as a project consultant for Shiseido. The experience, she says, shaped her design aesthetic. “I learned that even the most subtle details — the things that people cannot see — are just as important as those that they can see.”

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Alkalay sorts through her plant clippings, assessing their potential. She developed an appreciation for natural skin-care remedies from her parents — her mother is a pharmacist and her father trained as a dermatologist before switching to a pulmonary specialty when the family moved to the U.S. from Israel in 1965.

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Alkalay sets up her manual press with cranberries, a vitamin-rich fruit that she blended into her new Omega Eye Cream, which helps brighten dark circles and protect delicate skin from environmental damage, she says. “I can set up this press anywhere,” she explains, adding that she recently starting doing live distillations with various fresh ingredients in her flagship store in New York.

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A bottle of the Illuminating Rose Collagen Renewal Face Serum, a firming and plumping oil made from concentrated rose essential oil, extracted from 100 kilograms of rose petals. As with all products in the 10,000 Collection, the label is on the bottom of the bottle.

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Yael Alkalay is standing in the woods with a pile of plant clippings at her Wellington-shod feet. Her rescue dog, Salty, has broken free of his leash and is eagerly sniffing at the dirt. They’re in a wild field near Buzzards Bay on the southern coast of Massachusetts, where Alkalay has decamped for the season from her home base in New York City. Here among the rose hips, raspberries and hibiscus that grow throughout this area of New England, she’s spending a late-summer morning researching ingredients for her holistic beauty line, Red Flower.

This stretch of wild, overgrown land is not far from where Alkalay grew up, in New Bedford, a former whaling port with a lingering industrial grittiness and lighthouse-dotted shoreline. Her family moved to the U.S. in 1965 from Israel: Alkalay’s Bulgarian-born father was a pulmonary physician while her Argentine mother trained as a pharmacist, and was forever bringing in roots, stems and leaves from the garden to make natural remedies. “I come from a family connected to plants but also the medical field,” she says. With her curative botanical brand, which launched in 1999, she sought to combine both of her parents’ passions.

The line debuted with therapeutic teas and cotton-wick, petal-topped candles in quietly sophisticated packaging. Next came skin-care products inspired by far-flung locales, like the Ohana gingergrass bamboo scrub, which offers a modern spin on the invigorating pastes used in traditional Japanese bathhouses, and the Arctic berry cloud milk cream. The latter captures the sensation of rain vaporising on your skin with subtle traces of “moisture and lightness,” says Alkalay.

The brand’s newest release is the 10,000 Collection, Alkalay’s first facial-care range. It debuted last month, after seven years in the making. “I wanted the experience of a traditional facial but amplified through concentrated ingredients,” she says. The line includes a brightening rosewater polish, firming cranberry oil eye cream, collagen serum and beetroot lip balm, among other salves. Each formula contains no more than seven botanical ingredients but delivers more than 10,000 nutrients — from antioxidants to fatty acids — sourced from highly potent ingredients, says Alkalay.

To find plants at their peak, Alkalay often forages during spring and summer at Bay End Farm, in the town of Bourne. There, she ducks into the tiny cafe to grab an iced coffee before chatting with Kofi Ingersoll, the third-generation owner of the 35-acre organic farm, which supplies her with beets (known for their skin-revitalising properties) for the 10,000 Collection, along with cucumbers and lavender used throughout the range. Ingersoll is eager to show Alkalay the cucumber patch, where the gourds have grown well thanks to the generous summer rainfall. Tipping her face up to the sun, Alkalay tastes a deep green cucumber. “It’s perfect.”

Fresh haul in tow, Alkalay heads to her downtown New Bedford studio, a cooperative work space she keeps for the summer. Tucked in a textile mill, it has soaring 15-foot ceilings and views of the bay from the paint-chipped windows. Here, she sets up her portable steam distiller and manual hand press to experiment with her bounty. “I like to engage with the ingredients to see what possibilities they hold,” she says. She’ll jot down recipes in a small notebook to be considered for future formulas, while continuing to tinker with other plants — like bay berries, for example (“separating the wax from the berry, I haven’t mastered yet,” she says).

Spread out on her desk — constructed from a battered wooden hurricane barrier — are the bottles and jars for the 10,000 Collection. The labels appear to be missing, until Alkalay reveals that they are hidden on the bottom of the containers. “The simplicity of the packaging feels like a luxury,” she says. Ready to get back to pressing, she grabs a clipping from a raspberry shrub that’s curiously smushed. “Oh, I think Salty sat on it!” she says, smiling at the dog who is now stretched out near her feet, fast asleep.