Irene Forte of Irene Forte Skincare on the power of clean cosmetics, how she prioritizes self-care, and the advent of the “new natural”

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Describe your business in a few words?

Irene Forte Skincare is recognized as the ‘New Natural’. Wanting to offer natural skincare made better by science, our clean formulations deliver outstanding benefits, proven in both laboratory and clinical trials. We distill the benefits of the Mediterranean diet into effective but gentle skincare using ingredients grown at our organic farm in Sicily.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I launched the line in the UK two years ago. I had been working at Rocco Forte Hotels for the last 9 years, overseeing their spa and wellness offering (amongst a few other things), and only recently became a consultant for them to focus on my line. During that time and through my experience working with the spas, I saw the opportunity for natural and experiential formulations to be improved by scientific insight. I was also itching to do my own thing after having spent the majority of my working career in my family’s business.

I had the perfect base from which to start a natural line with our organic farm in Sicily, but I knew that I needed a brilliant scientific mind to help me formulate. After a lot of research in Italy, I came across my formulator in early 2014: Dottoressa Francesca Ferri, who had started formulating clean cosmetics and food supplements over 35 years ago. Her philosophy lined up with mine, and I thought that she was the perfect fit to help me bring a ‘natural skincare line made better by the guidance of science’ to life. 

We believe that natural ingredients are a great place to start but that not everything in nature is friendly. For example, essential oils are natural but they contain potentially irritating allergens; for this reason, we created a line with lab-formulated allergen-screened fragrance. We believe in using clinically proven ingredients and choose ingredients that work in harmony with one another and complement the body’s natural biochemistry. We look for actives naturally present in the skin or for biomimetic ingredients, making them biocompatible and exceptionally skin-friendly. We believe that the concentration and combination of ingredients in each product need to be scientifically calculated. Dr Ferri has run a number of studies illustrating that the effectiveness of many natural active ingredients actually diminishes when it goes beyond a certain percentage in a formula. So, we believe in putting the precise amount to deliver the most effective benefits while avoiding harmful side effects, and don’t believe in putting in a higher percentage just for marketing purposes. We advocate the concept of psico-cosmesi, meaning that what we put on our skin benefits us emotionally and thus physically. The organoleptic properties of a product are vital to achieve this.

With a number of years of development and after trying and testing them with elite spa professionals at Rocco Forte Spas, we created natural, plant-based formulations inspired by the Mediterranean diet, using ingredients grown at our organic farm in Sicily. They are guided by science and clinically proven with outstanding fragrance and feel and low allergenic potential. I also created a business with sustainability at its heart.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

After graduating from Oxford University, I completed a 6-month development program at Brown’s Hotel in London, concentrating on crucial hotel departments. Though it had never been my set plan to join Rocco Forte Hotels, I fell in love with the hospitality space during my time at Brown’s. I joined the central Rocco Forte’s Head Office team in 2013 to help determine the brand standards, which included a new service philosophy and values. In 2014, I was awarded £250k in government funding to create a careers and development tool for the hospitality industry, leading to the “Map My Future” app that launched in August 2016. Whilst overseeing elements of learning and development for the hotels, I also noticed that there was no unified approach towards the spas. Thus, I created and launched Rocco Forte Spas, which included a new spa philosophy, and fitness and nutrition offerings. This is also when I started working on my eponymous skincare line, which was initially launched into all Rocco Forte Spas and as hotel in-room amenities.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Yes, I was always very entrepreneurial. I launched a few ‘mini’ businesses within the hotels, and even as a kid I was always scheming some kind of ‘business venture’. I also had both my father and grandfather as entrepreneur role models.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

My strategy initially was to launch something that worked perfectly for Rocco Forte Spas because I was frustrated by the absence of spa formulations with the right characteristics, so I was not thinking so much about how to market it, but really about doing something wonderful for the hotel guests.

I did launch an eCommerce platform, but this was predominantly designed in my mind to help hotel and spa guests re-purchase the products.

However, I quickly realized that the products were being extremely positively received, so I decided to take on UK PR to help me get the word out there; this was my biggest investment but extremely helpful in my journey. They helped me secure my first retailer – NET-A-PORTER- with a global exclusive! And then things just started to pick up after that first retail partnership.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

I’ve made so many mistakes! One of the biggest mistakes I made was when I first launched the brand. The production of our lids were so behind schedule and we were in such a rush to launch, so I didn’t ‘quality check’ them before the product was filled; they were sent straight to my lab. We went out with products to all of our spas, and also sold a number of pieces online, and quickly realized that our supplier had forgotten to top coat the lids. Paint from the lids was coming off on everyone’s fingertips/ skin the minute the lid had any product on it/ was damp. So, I had to recall all the products – and had to manually change over 5000 lids at our fulfillment house in Glasgow. There are challenges every day, especially with a start-up. I have learnt to persevere, be resilient and never give up. I have also learnt to adapt! 

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

When it’s your own business, every milestone is extremely exciting… And there have been so many! To be honest, if I think back to two years ago when I launched the brand for Rocco Forte Spas, never in a million years would I have imagined being here today. If pressed to choose, signing Net-a-Porter was definitely my first big accomplishment. Signing Liberty in London, the Frasers group stores across the UK, Niche Beauty in Germany, and Luisa Via Roma in Rome were other big accomplishments. Also, in December I closed a big investor raise, and this is extremely exciting as it really allows me to take the brand to the next level. 

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

Given my Learning & Development/ HR background with the hotels, I built behavioral competencies for my team from the outset. I always hire against these competencies: teamwork, personal development, business awareness, technical skills, and environmental awareness. However, my biggest tips are to go with your gut, and hire people that complement your own skill set. 

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Initially, our supply chain was hugely affected by Covid-19. Everything is produced in North Italy, and this area of Italy went into total shutdown. This meant that we had serious shortages of stock. Also, our ‘bread and butter’ business was the spas, and we lost this business for over a year. Nevertheless, this made us switch our attention to retail and digital. We have signed with 24 new retailers over the last year, and our eCommerce is up three times on last year. This pandemic has allowed us to reassess how we do business and allowed us to do all the things that ‘we didn’t necessarily have time to do before’. We even launched an EU-regulated hand sanitizer with 70% alcohol, enriched with organic Aloe Leaf Juice and a blend of pure essential oils, including Lemon, Sage and Thyme. 

In terms of the wider industry, retail and spas have been seriously impacted. However, the skincare segment has still experienced a boom with consumers having more time at home to spend on personal care products. Research suggests that skincare will continue to outperform other beauty categories, and that self-care will likely see permanent growth as usage of products such as hand sanitizers and moisturizers become a part of people’s daily routine. In short, I think there is reason to be extremely optimistic for the future of skincare.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We have a lot of news and ‘newness’ coming up; we have been working very hard over the last year to take the brand to the next level. 

First and foremost, I have focused on clinical testing, as I believe that this is what the ‘New Natural’ is all about. We have clinically approved a number of our products for sensitive skin, and are now testing the full range. We have proven hydration results in clinical trials, proven to fight free radicals in laboratory testing, and are currently running a number of anti-wrinkle trials. Responding to new scientific insight, 2021 also sees the roll out of a series of new products; five will launch in the next six months alongside the brand’s first travel kit, containing six hero products.

Following our guiding principle of sustainability, we’ve tweaked the aesthetics of our packaging and made it even more green. All packaging is now 100% made in Italy and the boxes will continue to be made out of 100% recycled fibers with vegetable-based inks. Each bottle and jar will be made of recycled glass with a stone finish inspired by Mount Etna’s volcanic stone. Most will be refillable with bio-based plastic components that can be recycled via our recycling scheme. First Mile, a leading sustainability company, will be our official recycling partner. They will recycle the refillable components, as well the ‘hard-to-recycle’ non-refillable product lids and pumps, shredding them into flakes, which are then converted into plastic pellets to make new plastic products for things such as car parts and pipes. Envelopes will be pre-paid so that customers can easily return items. We’re introducing an olive wood spatula made by a carpenter in Puglia in Italy. We’re also integrating more zero waste upcycled ingredients, made from nutrient rich plant-based leftovers. I believe that sustainability is a journey and I’m constantly finding ways to improve. We already keep all aspects of production in Italy, grow ingredients on our organic farm in Sicily, use some upcycled Italian ingredients, support local farmers and artisans, and are certified for sustainable excellence by Positive Luxury, as well as newly certified vegan.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

How to adapt and pivot when necessary.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I was never under any disillusion that launching a business wouldn’t be tough; however, when I started I would get upset when things went wrong. I have learnt to be much more resilient and know that things going wrong is just part of the journey/ a learning curve. 

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

I love what I do. I have a fantastic team around me, and a wonderful husband, family and friends. 

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

Yes, I think this is vital. I really believe in self-care; this means taking an active role in protecting our own wellbeing and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.  My first tip is sleep. I sleep about 8.5 hours per night and never jeopardize sleep for work. My second is having a healthy and balanced diet. My third is regular exercise, vital for good health, and the skin thanks to the fact that it assists with the internal movement of blood, nutrients, oxygen and cellular energy. And my last, and most important,  is always making time for the people you love. 

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I wanted to become a soccer manager for a big male team; I was obsessed with Chelsea Football Club as a child and was convinced that I was going to manage them one day (until I was about 16). 

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Have a notepad and create a list that you keep updating.
  • Sleep at least 8 hours a night.
  • Drink lots of water and eat healthy meals so you’re not sluggish. 

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

I think it’s important to inspire and encourage other women to become entrepreneurs and do something they’re passionate about. I believe being an Entreprenista does just that. 

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