Both Susanne Kaufmann and the eponymous skincare brand she launched in 2003 are inextricably tied to the land they come from: the Bregenzer Forest in the heart of the Austrian Alps. The wooded valley remains to this day a beacon of everything beautiful about the region: trees soar lush and green in the warmer months and are dusted with snow each and every winter. The air is crisp and inviting in a way that seems synonymous with these unspoiled pockets of mountainous Europe. The alpine custodians are arranged into small villages imbued with a spirit of traditional artisanship - ways of living passed down from generation to generation, as old as the trees themselves and each flourishing in harmony.
What one has to remember is that Susanne Kaufmann launched her range of products in 2003, pioneering a commitment to natural ingredients long before much of the world began to take an interest in such qualities. “It was quite hard in the beginning,” says Susanne. “It took a long time to convince people that you can do, for example, anti-ageing with a natural cosmetic. People didn’t believe as much in natural ingredients as they did in chemicals.” Whilst stressing that natural cosmetics still only make up a small percentage of the global market (“around 10 or 12 per cent”) she acknowledges that things have come a long way over the past 13 years and is broadly optimistic that this will only improve. “It’s much more of a ‘lifestyle’ now - people care about what they eat, what they drink and how they use cosmetics. People are so much better informed about ingredients than they were in the beginning… I hope that people become more and more aware of everything!” This growth in understanding is reflected in the trajectory of the brand: starting as a purely in-house product at the family hotel and spa, Susanne’s products are now stocked globally, from boutiques and department stores in Asia to luxury retailers such as Net-A-Porter.
Whilst the wider world may still be in the ‘education’ phase for the most part, focusing on local Alpine ingredients for Kaufmann was (if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun) the most natural thing in the world. “I grew up with the fresh air and the cheese from the farmer nearby. People like this, they come to Bregenzer because they want the meat, they want to drink water out of a tap - it is not fancy, it’s natural and authentic. For me, it was clear that if I was going to grow my cosmetic range then everything had to be from the region and it has to be natural. You know, the Chinese have rice and we have cheese! It’s the same way of thinking - we should use the things surround-ing us the most.”
At the same time, Kaufmann has recognised the importance of taking the best elements from ‘modern-day’ practices and combining them with the traditional sources and methods she grew up with - for example using chamomile but in the form of a cream. “What has always been very important for us is mixing the plants to make them more effective, to really bring the active ingredient into the skin. It had to be very effective, because you don’t want to buy a cream at a high price that doesn’t actually help with anything! Being natural yes, but also being effective - this was very important to us.”
The equal emphasis on both quality and provenance means that an incredible amount of work goes into each individual Susanne Kaufmann product. Launching with just a hand cream, soap and bath oil, the range has expanded considerably since but Kaufmann and her small team still spend up to two and a half years developing each new addition. “First there is the idea, and then we meet with our dermatologists and producers to say: this is the form we want it to take (a lotion, say) and this is what we want it to do. He then sends us active ingredients and we check that they fit with our natural philosophy.” What follows is an intensive period of testing and re-testing. Once Kaufmann is satisfied with the new product, it then has to go through the wider security systems and tests that all skincare brands are subject to.
One senses that this can be a difficult experience, in part down to the very qualities that make Susanne Kaufmann products so special. “Natural cosmetics are similar to wine - the ingredients can change from year to year, so you have to check every product. You will never find that all the products are the same colour every year. I like that but for example, the anti-ageing line we are launching in September - that will be two and a half years since we began! With this one I said, it’s now or never…”
As we mentioned, Kaufmann’s skincare line works in tandem with her other main responsibility: proprietor of the family hotel and spa, which she took over in 1994, at the young age of 23. Like the products that she creates, her approach to the hotel is also a balancing act that places the natural wonders of Bregenzer at the fore whilst also accommodating the best of the modern world. “In the Seventies we only had a medical spa with an in-house doctor,” says Kaufmann. The modern spa has manicures, pedicures, facials and so on.” Again she begins to eulogise about her beloved Bregenzer and how more and more people are responding to its special qualities. One can’t help but think the words she uses to describe the environment also describe perfectly the qualities that make her skincare products so appealing: “You know, there is the ‘shiny’ luxury but this is not shiny - it’s in the details, the beautiful land, the good ingredients available and so on. That’s what certain people really love, not the luxury you necessarily see, but the experiences behind.”
By James Darton for Semaine.