The Ecologist meets… Ila founder Denise Leicester
15th February, 2012
Tucked away in leafy Gloucestershire is a beauty brand with a ‘beyond organic’ philosophy that’s making the world sit up and take notice. Ruth Styles hopped on the train and went to meet the inspirational Denise Leicester
You’d think that a farm would be the last place to look for an organic beauty brand so cool that every beauty editor between here and Hong Kong is raving about it. But in the case of ethical spa brand, Ila, you’d be wrong. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so taken aback by the agricultural surroundings. After all, the holistic outlook of founder, Denise Leicester, is centred around the natural, the beautiful and the serene. The Gloucester countryside surrounding Ila HQ is all these things with rolling green vistas stretching out in all directions and spiky-branched trees huddling protectively around the small white stucco barn in which the company is housed. Inside, the atmosphere is less peaceful and more purposeful, with Indian artefacts and a row of clocks all set to different times giving away more clues to the type of business done here.
As I walk in, it’s smiles all round but none is so large as the one I get from Denise. She’s clutching a pot of Ila’s latest – and as yet unreleased – organic potion and gives me some to try. It’s an eccentric cross between body oil and perfume and it smells amazing. ‘Jasmine! How gorgeous!’ I say and Denise beams. It is indeed jasmine – jasmine sambac to be precise – and we immediately fall into discussion about the merits of the little white flower, with Denise owning up to a yen for a special type of jasmine sambac, the name of which she can’t quite remember. ‘It’s jasmine… Jasmine m or something like that I think,’ she ponders. I later get an email to explain that it’s jasmine mogra but for now, talk turns to amber – a consignment of which has just arrived. Denise is itching to use it and inside the airy barn conversion where Ila products are made, shows it to me, oleaginous and deep honey gold, inside a prosaic plastic container. It smells rich and warm, with a slightly bitter drydown, although Denise assures me that the sharpness won’t last. We stroll over to a huge pine shelving unit crammed with enormous glass jars containing mysterious looking herbal concoctions. She opens a jar and I get a whiff of something that smells like distilled sunshine. It’s actually pure chamomile. Then comes rose, powdery and sweet, before we move on to Denise’s base blend. Used in nearly every Ila product, she won’t tell me exactly what’s in it but it smells utterly divine.
After I’d been dragged away from the cornucopia of fabulous oils and finished products lining the walls of the factory, we sit down to chat. Interestingly, although everything Ila produces is 100 per cent organic and sourced along Fairtrade lines, Denise has no links with the Fairtrade Foundation or the Soil Association. ‘So why not?’ I ask. ‘I wanted to bring a product that had extreme purity and integrity and I thought that the only way that I could really do that would be to work very strongly with the Soil Association,’ she explains. ‘From the start I wanted absolute purity but after some of the obstacles I had with the Soil Association, I moved from having the brand stamped with the Soil Association to making sure all our ingredients are better than organic.’
But how can you do that without working in the framework that certification gives you? According to Denise, the answer was to get out and meet the people growing her botanical supplies, from argan nut farmers in Morocco to rose growers in India. ‘Once I’d been to Morocco and [met] the growers, it was so simple,’ reminisces Denise. ‘And then that led to us flying to India, which was interesting because I was given a list of all the rose growers so I phoned them all and my first question would be, “Do you distil your own roses?” followed by “Can we come and visit you?” The first would always be answered, tick the box. But the second… They'd just laugh and say, “Of course you can't! Nobody is going to let you come and visit their rose farms” and I just thought, 'Well you must have something to hide.' Eventually I got in touch with a man called Pavan and the very first thing he said to me was, “Why don’t you and your husband come here and we will show you and you can spend time with us.”’
Although Ila doesn’t work with the Fairtrade Foundation or the Soil Association, it does work with French scheme, ECOCERT, which has come under fire from green groups in the past thanks to their low threshold for organic ingredients. I put it to Denise, who acknowledges that certification plans are far from perfect. ‘Hmm. You've brought up a very interesting point,’ she says. ‘But the Soil Association is the same - they will approve quite a lot of chemicals that we wouldn’t use.’ And that’s the crux of the matter as far as Denise is concerned. In short, for Ila, it’s not about the product living up ECOCERT or Soil Association standards; it’s about them living up to Denise’s own – and hers are high. Take the factory for instance. A world away from the gigantic stainless steel edifices employed by Clinique and co, it’s small, homely and looks more like an over-sized kitchen than a manufacturing plant. Staffed by local women, who make all the products by hand, everything is made on large wooden tables and is blessed before it leaves the building.
Then, there are the ingredients, which Denise buys from small farmers with whom she has a personal relationship. The Pavan story applies to all Ila suppliers and as far as Denise is concerned, that’s how it’s going to stay. ‘In India, the roses that we buy aren’t ECOCERT certified - I don't think anyone [from ECOCERT] has ever been there, or the Soil Association. But we've been there. We spent a lot of time with them and saw the way that they farm The way they work is beyond anything organic: they don’t use any machinery, it's all done by hand, they use monsoon water to irrigate, they use monsoon water to make swimming pools to cool the distillations, they use cow dung as fuel, and the cows are used in the field. And when the petals have been distilled, they're then put out to ferment and they're fed to the cows. The process is phenomenal and uses no electricity.’
The holistic, environmentally-conscious ethos employed by Ila is partly due Denise’s background as an aromatherapist and a yoga teacher but as she explains, it’s also a response to the growing demand for beauty products that don’t cost the earth in literal or human terms. Making the most of the stories behind the ingredients used in Ila products has become a key part of the customer experience, not least because people now demand to know where their beauty treats are sourced. This is something Denise welcomes both from clients and suppliers, and most are only too happy to get involved. ‘When we launched in 2007, people were far less interested than they are now,’ she says. ‘It [provenance] is becoming something that our spas and our clients really want to know [about]. They want to know where did this come from? Things like sandalwood for instance. You know, sandalwood is now protected in India because it's been wiped out. Our farmers in India said, “Just do not buy Indian sandalwood. Ever.” So now we buy it from Australia and it's grown in a really sustainable way.’
Sustainability, natural wellness and organic products that really work are what sums up Ila. I’d been using the wonderful jasmine-scented Body Scrub for a Blissful Experience in the weeks leading up to my meeting with Denise and had found the combination of argan oil and natural Himalayan rock salt a real revelation. Its multiple uses – as a scrub, as a moisturiser and as an aid to relaxation – had convinced me of its practical merits, while the soft, glowing skin left behind had proved its effectiveness. Denise, who formulates all the products herself, wasn’t surprised, but those still clinging to their Clinique just might be. They really shouldn’t.
If you’re after a brand that goes beyond Soil Association standards, is paraben and sulphate free and really works, then Ila is for you. ‘Somebody said to me recently, “But your products have only got an 18 month shelf life or 12 months,” and I said, “so? Actually if you had something that's got a two year plus shelf life, I can guarantee it's got chemicals in it; it has to have.” All products – regardless of whether they're chemical free or not – once you open the product you need to use it within six months,’ says Denise. ‘But what we do with the way that we manufacture is make small batches so that we never hold a huge stock. Everything comes and goes and comes and goes. Wouldn't you want to buy something that was freshly made?’ I would, wouldn’t you?
For more information, see www.ila-spa.com
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