Style: How beauty label Fresh grew from one shop to 710 stores and counters in 25 years

Founders of beauty label Fresh mark a quarter-century of producing all-natural beauty products

With a brand name like Fresh, keeping things new and energetic for a beauty company 25 years in the business may prove to be a challenge.

But its founders, a couple married for just a year longer than the time the brand has been around, seem to take the challenge in their stride.

In 1991, Mr Lev Glazman and Ms Alina Roytberg started Fresh with a small beauty boutique in Boston, selling a single product: an oval, triple-milled vegetable-based soap made in France.

They handwrapped the first 800 bars themselves, suffering cuts from the silver wires twined around the package, which was whimsically topped with a semi-precious stone. Even the labels, all 800 of them, were laboriously handwritten by Ms Roytberg in fine penmanship.

Their hard work paid off. An instant hit, the soap flew off the shelves, gaining a cult following for its lovely scent, natural ingredients and exquisite packaging.

That was one moment when I felt for a second, 'Oh my god, I mean, what am I going to do? What am I going to do with all the soap? There is so much soap. What will happen if we can't sell it?'

FRESH CO-FOUNDER LEV GLAZMAN on his reaction when the label's first shipment - comprising 800 bars of soap - arrived in a truck in the 1990s

  • What to try

  • Fresh is known for its use of natural ingredients, such as sugar, sake, black tea and, its latest favourite, citrus fruit.

    Its founders, Mr Lev Glazman and Ms Alina Roytberg, are still personally involved in developing each product. Naturally, they also use them on their own skin.

    Here, they share their tips on using the brand's top-sellers.

    1 Sugar Lip Polish, $34

    Get kissable lips and wear the reddest lipstick without fear after using this gentle exfoliant. It contains brown sugar for buffing and shea butter and jojoba oil to nourish the lips. Ms Roytberg advises: "Before wearing a bold shade, you should prep your lips with a gentle lip scrub. Sugar Lip Polish buffs away dry flakes and leaves the lips velvety soft, so that the colour goes on more evenly."

    2 Creme Ancienne Ultimate Nourishing Honey Mask, $229; Elixir Ancien, $236 (20ml), $438 (50ml)

    Each jar of the top-of-the-range Creme Ancienne is blended by hand in a monastery in the Czech Republic, based on a cold cream formula from the second century. The anti-ageing potion contains honey and chamomile, among other natural ingredients.

    Mr Glazman, who uses a mask every day, says: "The honey mask gives you supreme nourishment. I like to follow my mask with Elixir Ancien. I also use this before I go to bed. But using this after our mask, to me, is the ultimate beauty ritual."

    3 Vitamin Nectar, $105

    Give your skin a dose of vitamin C with the latest mask from Fresh, up to 50 per cent of which is made up of pure crushed oranges, lemons and clementines harvested in the Mediterranean.

    Mr Glazman was inspired by the power of vitamins to create this marmalade-like product, which took four years of research and development to stabilise these food-grade ingredients.

    The mask claims to increase radiance and glow by 30 per cent after one use and by 49 per cent after four weeks of use.

    He adds: "I like to apply it first thing in the morning. I use a generous amount of the mask in circular motions and let it absorb for the full 10 minutes, then wash it off with a washcloth.

    "What's great about this mask is you can use it whenever you want a glow. If you want to bring life to your skin at the end of the day before a night out, apply the mask."

    To launch Vitamin Nectar in Singapore, Fresh will be giving away sampling kits and cold- pressed orange juice at Chevron House in Raffles Place today and tomorrow from 10am to 8pm.

    4 Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask, $95

    Made from a naturally occurring clay in Nocera Umbra, a small town in Italy, Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask is a multi-functional treatment for normal to oily skin.

    According to Mr Glazman, it can be used in three ways.

    To use the formula as a deep cleanser, apply a small amount to damp skin and rinse off. To use as an instant purifying mask, leave on for three to five minutes and rinse off. To use as a spot treatment to minimise small imperfections, dab it on an affected area and allow it to fully dry. Rinse with tepid water.

    5 Sake Bath, $81 (200ml), $134 (400ml)

    Pure sake is used to make this luxurious bath product, inspired by the beauty rituals of the Japanese geisha. More than 50 per cent of the purifying soak is made of sake, which comes from rice grains and is known to detoxify and soften the skin.

    For those without bathtubs at home, the Sake Bath is also great for foot soaks after a long day out. Just add one capful into a pail of warm water to pamper your feet.

    6 Rose Face Mask, $95

    The rose face mask provides deep hydration. The gel formula contains pure rosewater and real rose petals and melt into the skin.

    Ms Roytberg adds: "I like to chill Rose Face Mask in the fridge to help enhance its soothing effects while it hydrates."

    Aloe vera gel and cucumber extract add to the cooling effects.

    7 Black Tea Age-Delay Firming Serum, $123 (30ml), $161 (50ml); Black Tea Firming Overnight Mask, $144

    Way before kombucha (or fermented black tea) became a popular drink among hipsters, black tea was already known for its antioxidant properties. Fresh's proprietary complex - composed of fermented black tea, black tea extract, blackberry leaf extract and lychee seed extract - claims to inhibit damaging free radicals and help improve skin elasticity.

    Mr Glazman says: "You can pair Black Tea Age-Delay Firming Serum with a mask. Apply the serum after a rinse-off mask and before an overnight mask. It is especially effective when used before the Black Tea Firming Overnight Mask to help firm and define the complexion."

    8 Soy Face Cleanser, $23 (50ml), $63 (150ml)

    The founders translated the health buzz surrounding soya in the early 1990s into skincare, by doing research into its benefits on the skin.

    Introduced in 1999, it was also the brand's first foray into skincare and the line now consists of a cleanser, eye make-up remover and exfoliant.

    Says Ms Roytberg: "My sacred beauty ritual consists of always, always washing my face at night with the Soy Face Cleanser.

    "We say, 'Good skin begins with fresh skin.'"

The company has come a long way from single-product success story to beauty counter perennial. It now has more than 200 products in its stable, including masks, creams and cleansers, all of which use natural ingredients such as sugar, black tea, sake and soya.

Today, following a majority stake acquisition by French luxury conglomerate LVMH in 2000, Fresh has 710 stores and counters in 11 countries - and the couple behind it retain the passion they had when they launched the business 25 years ago.

The Straits Times met them in Paris in April for a round of media interviews celebrating the brand's 25th anniversary and the launch of a new product, a mask called the Vitamin Nectar. Up to 50 per cent of each jar is pure crushed oranges, lemons and clementines harvested in the Mediterranean every year.

In an interview filled with hearty laughter and fond memories, the couple recall how they used to sleep with their baby daughter- now 22 - between them and the phone next to them, so as not to miss a single order, back when there was no such thing as online shopping.

Working 12-hour days was the norm then.

Now, they still work side by side, day in, day out - but within a more structured corporate environment. They remain completely hands-on at Fresh, despite being part of the huge LVMH conglomerate, which also owns fashion houses such as Celine, Christian Dior and Fendi, and cosmetic brands Guerlain, Benefit and Make Up For Ever, among others.

Mr Glazman, 55, says that LVMH has "a humongous, tremendous respect towards the founders".

He says: "We could have partnered any of the bigger companies, but that was not our interest. We did not want to partner anybody who would want to make a change. LVMH never wanted to make any change. It wants to keep things as they are. So that gave us the opportunity of preserving the vision and personality of the brand."

As the "nose" of the operation due to his passion for scents, he travels regularly from their New York home to the Fresh laboratory in Saint-Jean-de-Braye, France. There, he works closely with the scientists to develop products, often based on natural remedies or recipes that spark his interest.

If Mr Glazman is the "nose", then Ms Roytberg, 54, constitutes the "eyes" of the operation. Her fashion background, design aesthetic and attention to detail have given the products a distinctive look and feel - luxe, yet never unapproachable.

She explains the brand's philosophy, which is also their personal one: "We love small pleasures - that's what we engage in on an everyday level and people can connect to it. You wake up, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, you have your favourite healthy food for breakfast which gives you a good start.

"Small things that you surround yourself with help you to be in a good balance to move on in your day, so you can do the things you love.

"That's the Fresh lifestyle. It's allowing yourself to take the time for those small pleasures. And not to take your phone to your bedroom."

They started with no background in the beauty business. He was a dental technician and had run a window-washing operation, while she has a degree in fashion design from Parsons School of Design.

But he always had a dream of creating his own soap, which she supported. So they spent time in France sourcing for ingredients, learning from their suppliers and coming up with the formula for the soap.

They approached many manufacturers to make it, but could not afford the huge production runs required. So they found a small soap-maker in the south of France who made a small, initial batch with delicate single-note scents.

Fragrances are a particular obsession of his, going back to his childhood in what was then called Leningrad - now St Petersburg - in the former Soviet Union.

His mother had bought an expensive bottle of perfume from the black market, as there was only one fragrance, Red Moscow, available in the communist country. That olfactory memory has stayed with him and sensually scented products are now a hallmark of Fresh's offerings.

Based on just their gut feel and affinity for all things handmade, they had instinctively sussed out a niche market at a time when "organic" and "all natural" were not the buzzwords they are now.

Natural brands such as Aveda, Jurlique, Burt's Bees and Weleda were in the market, but did not have the artisanal yet luxe feel of Fresh.

They started the business with US$5,000 from his mother and US$5,000 from her parents. He says: "We started with US$10,000 and then it became minus US$10,000 and minus US$20,000."

Despite initial losses, they persevered - though they had a minor crisis when their first shipment of 800 bars of soap arrived in a truck.

Laughing uproariously, Mr Glazman says: "All my partners in Fresh and team members, they know we are always very positive. But that was one moment when I felt for a second, 'Oh my god, I mean, what am I going to do? What am I going to do with all the soap? There is so much soap. What will happen if we can't sell it?'"

That night, in their basement, they packed their first products for sale.

When they put the soap in their shop window and their first customer walked in, Mr Glazman, a natural-born salesman, swung into action. But before he could finish his spiel on the benefits of their soap, the customer was sold.

Within three months, their entire stock of soap had flown off the shelves.

By 1995, Oval Soap had been picked up by upscale department store Barneys New York, where its first wholesale order was sold out in three days. Within the year, Fresh was carried in 200 stores in the United States. 

The use of simple, natural and effective ingredients has also won fans in Singapore, such as Ms Janet Ho, 49. A consultant in the financial sector, she uses Fresh products almost exclusively as she feels the immediate effects on her skin. 

She says: "The products use natural ingredients, such as rose and honey, yet they are of high quality and luxurious. Fresh also does not overprice its products. It's affordable luxury."

In 2000, LVMH acquired a majority stake in the cult brand. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

With the partnership, the American brand started going places.

Last year, it ventured into Europe with counters in London's Harrods and Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Asia figures prominently in its expansion plans, particularly China, where it has 32 stores and counters. There are a total of 120 stores and counters in Asia, while in Singapore, there are two standalone stores at Ion Orchard and Raffles City, measuring more than 700 sq ft each.

Its best-selling product is no longer soap, but the Sugar Lip Treatment Sunscreen SPF 15 introduced in 2004, with more than one million sold every year. It contains real sugar, one of the natural ingredients which Fresh pioneered for use in cosmetics and which is a natural humectant.

Notably, in keeping with its down-to-earth philosophy, the brand has never advertised or used models to promote its products.

The couple have two daughters aged 18 and 22. 

Just the mere mention of the word "retirement" is enough to make them gasp in mock horror.

"Well, we're a little young for that. I think we still have some time before turning 70," Ms Roytberg, who turns 55 next month, says with a chortle.

Nodding vigorously, her husband adds: "'Making it' is a phrase that is commonly used. You're becoming a bigger company, you live more comfortably and all of those things, but you don't ever really 'make it'. You get from one stage to another. It's a continuous journey.

"It doesn't stop. The only time it stops is when..."

"When the door closes," she says.

"When the door closes," he echoes, using his palms to cover his face. 

"When you're dead," they say, once again bursting into infectious chuckles - together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Still fresh, after 25 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe