ABOUT NEIGE @GREENBEAUTYDIRECTORY
Below is the transcript of her interview with Christo + Johanna, first published on @greenbeautydirectory's Instagram June 2019).
What lead you to create Lepaar?
Johanna: The brand started with us meeting because before that I was just making my rudimentary skincare myself, the way my mother taught me. I always made my own oil and that sort of stuff but it was never meant to be anything commercial. For most of my life I used products by Dr. Hauschka, because my family associated with the company a little bit so that was always in our cupboards. But after a while I couldn't use it anymore, and I didn't know why, I had no idea about the effect of essential oils etc. so I decided to make something for myself and my mom helped me, and remembered all the recipes she used to do.
And then, when I met Christo, we didn't really think skincare... we are both creative people, I am a graphic designer and Christo is an interior designer, so we're both totally visual people who like to travel and like to have a pretty good life, and like the sunshine, and love nature, so we created all these other different things beforehand. And then at some point, I had some serious batches of the skincare proposal and Christo said "that's amazing, we should give it to some of our friends and then start from there, and start testing". It really was a completely organic process.
We also had a graphic design company at that time, we were doing branding, but we were working for companies that weren't aligned with us, big corporations that were importing things from China etc. so it was really against our ethos, and Christo said "I'm not doing this anymore, it's not good, I'm sorry but I'm leaving" and I said "Wait a second, it is OUR company, you cannot leave!" [both laughing]. So we literally stopped doing that from one day to the next, and since we had the skincare, we started to look into that, and then of course we started with sourcing the right bottles and packaging, and we were completely overwhelmed with this process.
It only started coming all together when I began digging into my German roots, what I knew almost subconsciously, from my family upbringing and where I grew up... Because I've been away from Germany for almost 20 years, so it's been a long time since I really connected with the German culture. Then it was like "oh no, these potions, they have to be sitting in a dark jar, they cannot just be in see-through glass". So all of a sudden it started to be this holistic thing that came together. And then of course, I remembered the biodynamic agriculture, and I knew I wanted it to be like that, and not because I wanted to be different, or that we wanted to be a different kind of skincare brand, we have no interest in that, we don't want to be different just for the sake of it, we just want to be good, and whole, and connected. And then growing our ingredients came about because we have a land in Kangaroo Valley which is 100 acres of property, of pristine bush land, about 2 hours away from the city. It was the ideal place to grow and forage: it is all nature, it is all growing beautifully there. And that is where we are now. Really trying to check-in with nature, and always drawing from things that are whole.
I can talk about all those things, but the spiritual aspect of the brand is very much where Christo comes in... We are a very personal brand, we are not even a brand as such, we are just two people with a very personal quest of wanting to contribute something to this world. And that is really beyond the things that you put on your face, it's about how we sustain nature, it is how the ingredients are grown, and the carbon footprint needs to be considered... That is why we love the sun infusion, and of course we chose it because it is an ancient tradition, but I love it also because it uses no electricity. It does need time, and at some point that is something we decided, that one thing we have is time. And it means that so far we are pretty slow.
We have been around for four years now and we are growing very slowly. We definitely didn't jump onto the scene like "hello, we're here and everything is perfect!". Initially we had seals on the bottles, and then at some point we realized we couldn't do that anymore. Because they contained vinyl, but also because it was so time consuming it got ridiculous, being there stamping seal for every single bottle. And I love that we develop as we grow. We’ve changed a lot, and we're never saying "this is us!". We allow ourselves to be driven by the forces of the universe that come towards us, and that allows us to work with people. Like doing little collaborations with growers and people who are producers and letting things come along.
For example, Christo has just been making wine last week with a friend, and they properly pressed it etc. And we had all this leftover grape skin, which is amazing, so we stood there thinking "what do we do with it?". Christo brought them back, and we dried them, and now we are going to use them. We might change one of the formulas, they could be in the Elementary Day Surf because the grape extract is so good for the skin, especially for sun protection. We want to be open for changes.
Christo: And when you see something that is thrown out, which comes from an extraordinary farm and was grown so beautifully, it's like, hang on a minute, this is an empty area, how do we use this so that it gives back, so that nothing is wasted or destroyed, so that there are no missing pieces. You know it's given, so it's about reminding people of the spirit of things, reminding people that everything is imbued with something... What integral value does it have? Who does it support? What's behind it? Asking people to pose a few questions before purchasing anything. It's important for us to remind people of that, whether it's buying a chair or skincare, or eating meat or not. The provenance of something, and what went into it...
Johanna: ...and with the skincare in particular, we can remind people of that with the simple way we are stitching our own packaging, and again, it is not to be different, it's just about finding a way to do it that is very simple and sustainable... we don't need to use horrible inks etc. It's also sustainable because it is small, we can keep it small-scale. Because you know in Australia we don't really have a printing industry, so most companies they go to China to have everything printed and then have the packaging shipped back. And we decided not to do this, because we didn't have the money and also because Christo has been making furniture, he is an amazing sewing-master, he makes all of our cushions and he makes me things. He used to make leather bags... we have this whole leather bag range that is sitting there because we never launched it... but that's another story! But it feeds into what we do, it's that hands-on approach. Christo never minded much, but at the beginning I felt so self-conscious because everything looked so handmade. I kept thinking that it didn't look professional. But at some point I was able to let go of that and to realize the value of it. Now I'm hoping that somehow we can sustain that. We got some seamstresses that we know, and we could give them the packaging and they could sew it at home while looking after their kids... that's the sort of thing we want, rather than going really big... we don't really plan for the future that much, but we do think that we want to keep everything hands-on, literally use our hands.
At the beginning, when we started to go down the commercial road, I thought we had to do contract manufacturing so I looked into that. But it turned out they couldn't do the sun infusion, and what I didn't know at that time is that even though it was my formula, they would still own it and I had to buy it from them to do it, and the prices were extremely high. It didn't seem right, and they wouldn't even allow for me to source some of my ingredients. So that was part of the decision of staying small, and doing it ourselves. Because everything is made by someone, even if we seem to forget it a little bit these days... One of my relatives even came to me and said "you can't sell skincare that you are making yourself!" and I was like "what do you mean? When you go to the restaurant where do you think that is coming from? Someone is making it in the kitchen".
Christo: It is an odd thing though, that a winemaker can put his feet in the grapes and sell it hundreds of dollars a bottle but in skincare there is this thing about hygiene, not making it at home.
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you source your ingredients?
J: We grow some of it ourselves, but because our farm doesn't have any official certification even though we use the biodynamic principles, we use the term "wildcrafted". Some of it we actually grow, and some of it we go into the forest, because we know where the patches of stinging nettles are so we walk there, or we get mimosa from the mimosa trees because they are just growing all over the place. And we got a yuzu lemon tree... And then most of our Calendula comes from Tasmania, where we have a certified organic grower with whom I have been working for a really long time. We used to get some teas from them, and they've been around for me from the very beginning, back then I would just buy very small quantities, and now it's so lovely to be able to put in bigger orders. It is a beautiful, pristine farm and they grow so many things. They do our lavender, our chamomile, our calendula of course and then sometime other ones like marshmallow etc. Mostly the fresh herbs, I mean the dried herbs that I use to infuse, they come from there.
C: If Johanna can source it locally she will, but the quality has to be exceptional, so she'll go as far as needed to find that exquisite quality.
J: We have a few importers/distributors of seed oils etc. in Australia that I trust. One of them I get some of the stuffs from, all certified organic... I only work with people who can tell me where it's from, who can tell me what the farm actually looks like. That's why we only work with people we know. And there are some things that I can't get here, because the quality is not adequate. Some things we have to get from Germany, but it's too expensive to get it shipped here, so when someone comes to visit us, they bring us entire jars of it, because the quality is unlike anything else I've seen. Or like the grapeseed oil from South Africa… It needs to smell of grape! I always know by the scent. I don't like to work with refined oils, I use oils that are unrefined and as natural as possible, and that's not easy, for that you have to go to the source. So I have spent a lot of time on Google trying to find people, almost following trails. Now we are in a different position because we have friends, we met people... I have a friend who sources his coffee in Ethiopia, so I can ask him to bring me back my resins, or the frankincense. So we can do things a little bit differently these days, and hopefully that develops. I always wanted to actually travel to those countries, but apart from Tasmania and Germany, I haven't really been there and actually seen... but that's on our list, that's what we are going to do next, I really want to go to those places and see and get the materials directly.
C: And then you meet the people and you get all these stories... you support the things you love and the people you love, and then our story becomes their story.
N: Yes, and as a customer, it is completely different for me to know that part of my money is actually going to support the people who produced the ingredients...
J: It needs to be like that, it is so important. And on the front end, the integrity of the seed oils or the fruit oils, they are so different depending on the source. The difference is incredible! You can take two oils which have the same name on the package, and yet one doesn't smell anything, even though it is certified organic! And I can tell, it has no color, no scent, there is nothing in it... maybe it feels good, I don't know, but it doesn't do anything.
So connecting with these people, I love it, it is such a beautiful thing.
And we get some of our essential oils from the US, there is this one distributor, and the person is really good, super transparent, and I know how the oils are made, how the plants are grown. And they also travel the world to find them, which makes all the difference. If I can't do it, I want someone to do it for me, and tell me their stories... that soul-connection is important, do you have a connection with these people, do they have the same ethos? It's not good to buy something just because it is cheap.
So now, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your formulation process?
I actually think about things a lot, I only write things down very late in the process. Sometimes I come across a certain ingredient and I remember, for example, Christo complaining about something on his skin, and I realize it could be good for that, so I keep it in the back of my mind, and then it comes again and then I really start thinking about what it could work with. I look a lot at what grows together naturally. There are things that complement each other in nature, because plants communicate, so it is interesting to look at that. Which is why in most of our compositions we have the calendula as a base oil, because calendula is the best companion plant in the world. Wherever you plant calendula, everything else thrives, it is incredible. We have it in our garden, and last year we had the worst drought, with no rain whatsoever, but the calendula was going. It was amazing, and everything else was coming up, lettuces, tomatoes. It is that energizer, that facilitator...
And then I kind of just take notes in my mind of what could go together... Sometimes I remember some of the things my mother would do, like for example, if we had a stomach ache, she would put ginger wrapped on our stomach, on the outside. So I think "how did that work?", and I research how it sit on the skin etc. But a lot of it is in the dream space. I always tell Christo, "I got this idea, something is coming up, and what about that, and I'm thinking about this...". He is always the one testing it, the texture, the slip, everything. And usually, it doesn't take me long to actually make it, because it is such a construct in my head already, that I know. Nowadays I have a lot of extracts, so I'm looking at them, at the color... and sometimes I can see visually what's right, what will go with what. And then once I've put it together, it sits there, and all I have to decide is whether I want it to be thicker? richer? Of course I also think, for example, if it's going to be something for the night... Like the Zen Matcha Cashmere I just wanted something richer to put at night, like a mask, not just a light oil, but something that wouldn't disturb me. So of course I had to make it thicker. But that's really more technical, that's the end stage. Before I'm like, "what's good?". For example, I like milk thistle for night compositions because it supports the liver, and the liver restores itself at night, so it works with that organ.
C: It's very alchemic your process, it happens, it comes from a very deep space.
J: Also, sometimes I walk past a tree, and there is a scent and I think "Oh, this is a good scent"... because I don't really want to use essential oil that much, so I think how can I get a scent like this in an oil? Because when you put a plant into an oil, it changes completely... You don't really get the fresh scent of like a frangipani plant, which is like this marzipan, beautiful orchid. You don't really get it... So how do you do to keep it so floral, and lovely, and light? Those things are challenges... but I usually get there, somehow, even if I have to let it sit for some time and then revisit it. Like the Elemental Day Silk, I just couldn't get it right! And it wasn't until I came across something, a book that talked about certain roots, and I realized it was what I needed. But then it took so long to source it, and then to infuse it... Because when I think about an ingredient, I also need to allow about 4 to 6 months for the infusion, so that it is ready for me to use in the formulation. So I have to really think about it, because it is costing me time, and money... and if it doesn't work, I am wasting precious olive oil, as it is the base for the infusion. That's why I think about it for so long. And I also have herbs that I haven't used yet, and I'm thinking "what are they gonna be?".
C: But it is lovely because you are developing a library of infused oils, and you can pick from it at any point... it is quite beautiful.
J: Yes, it is beautiful. And the interesting thing too is that I don't have to worry about using them because the sun infusion they don't go off, the olive oil, the chemistry of it, it's amazing, I have never had one oil go off! It's incredible. I think there is one that I've had for two years, because I just couldn't use it in what I was working on, and I checked it and it is still good... I think the naturally preserving components in the herbs and the oil synergize together to preserve each other, it's really beautiful to witness.
And what usually leads you to create a new product: a need? an ingredient you want to use? a product that does not exist on the market yet?
J: It is never about whether something exists on the market or not, I really stopped looking at that. It is more about what we like, usually that's how it starts. Like Christo will say "oh, I'd like a body oil", so I'm like "okay, I will make you a body oil" [laughing]. Recently he needed a shaving oil, so I started working on that, and then we realized it couldn't just be an oil because it was sticking to hair etc. and it was really unpleasant. So it had to be a bit soapy, and I started working with olive soap, a kind of castile soap we make... actually we're going to launch it at some point. But basically, it usually starts with Christo asking for something, or me thinking about something I need. Like lately I have been doing a lot of gardening, and my cuticles they get destroyed, so I realized I needed something... so that might be a product. I started thinking about it, about what I need, what would be good for that. And I also do some researches, or ask other people, and then I have a big book, and I just write down little ideas. It can start simply with "cuticle oil" or "nail oil", and that's the headline, and as I think about it I add things, and by the time I get to it I might have already 10 ingredients, so then I have to choose. And of course I look at costs, and that's a bit boring that part. We tend not to care about that so much, so a lot of the times we put a lot and realize that it is too expensive and we have to tweak a few things [laughing].
And then I definitely also work from ingredients that I want to use.
Another thing I was wondering about is how is the work divided between the two of you?
C: I'm very hands-off, I'm very big picture, I'm out in the world a lot. Johanna bounces things off me, I kinda of know what works and what doesn't work...
J: You make all the packaging though...
C: Yes, I'm sewing the packaging. But mostly I am a sounding board. Because Lepaar is not just skincare, it is who we are. We might be doing skincare at this point, but it might change in the future, or it might become different.
J: And Christo is also our communicator... I often get a bit overwhelmed with that side of things, I'm not very good at answering emails and all that stuff, and Christo is an amazing people-person he just goes and talks to everyone and makes a connection with everyone. So he looks after our retailers, make sure that they are okay... we have a small set of retailers and they are lovely and we love them. And it really is thanks to Christo because he facilitates the connection with them, and checks in with them...
C: Johanna is doing all the hard work though!
J: Yes I do all the other stuff, but I never feel like I am doing all this and Christo is not... And he thinks about what we do all the time. Like with the wine-making, it was so part of what we do, it was exactly aligned with all our ethos, and it always comes back to the skincare as well...
C: To me it's like joining the pieces, it's about the bigger picture, like meeting someone and seeing the same language in different areas... and then joining table together, and ideas... and timing is everything, it's like "oh I got that piece over here, and that piece over there, and I'm not ready for that one but here is another one...". And you don't know until it is whole.... "it's not ready, it's not ready, oh now here it is". It is lovely though. We are very lucky, we live a very blessed life, and we have a lot of fun. We do things from a very inside-out place. We don't move until we're moved…
J: And it can be like being moved to harvest Yuzu lemons... I mean you can't do anything until they are ripe, and that's what we do together, we go and harvest. So there is a division of labors in what we do, but also really not...
C: It's not very structured [both laughing].
J: No, definitely not. But I can say for myself, it was always what I wanted, to find a life-partner with whom I could work. So it's beautiful. And we spend a lot of time together, actually, like a huge amount of time. Which is also why we called ourselves Lepaar, because friends would say "oh, here is the pair!", like this funny French word "la paire", so that's where it came from, because we really are together a lot.
Could you talk about some of the specific processes that you use, such as sun infusion, rhythmical blending, infusion rather than e.o. etc.?
J: Regarding the sun infusion, it has to do with biodynamie... The biodynamic principles tend to be widely known as a farming practice, kind of like permaculture. People do not associate bidoynamie so much with how you live, or how you make something, it is more associated with the soil. But the truth is, they are working in sync with the moon and the stars and the celestial forces. It follows the moon calendar, and moves with fluidity, so it works with life. So the sun infusion allows all of those forces to imbue my potion all that time. It is not just about drawing out the goodness of the herbs into the oil, but there is something else that comes through and that can only come through over time and with exposure. The sun energy... we have a funny relationship with the sun these days because we are so scared of it, because we have been taught to fear it and to protect ourselves all the time. But it is the force of life, it is what makes our food, it is what makes everything grow, it makes us... without this we wouldn't exist, we would be very sick or very, very small [laughing]. Christo really is the sun-seeker of the family... we always joked with my daughter that if she ever lost us she could just follow the sun and she would find Christo! For me the sun energy is this divine energy that I really wanted to have in the formulations. This is skin-care, we are caring for something so beautiful... I thought it was really important to have that for something that is touching the outer part of my being...
The rhythmic stirring also comes straight from the biodynamic farming, where you activate a concentrated substance by stirring it in water, like homeopathic remedies.
C: You're giving it life force.
J: It's like this vortex stirring. It's activating the life force and bringing that into the liquid. They make these vortex water, you stir it in one direction, and when it starts to spin you do it the other way. We use that for whatever I have to stir.
And regarding the use of gold, frankincense and myrrh (the sacred-trinity), it comes from the homeopathic medicine, which I grew up with. I love them because they have beneficial properties for the skin, but they really are in our compositions for spiritual activation, to bring everything together, to align your body, your soul and your spirit in this world. That's the thought-process behind it. Because gold, myrrh and frankincense, you know the whole Wise Kings story, they were brought as gift for Jesus, and they were meant as companion gifts, they had meaning. Gold was given to anchor the child's body into this world, because it is the manifestation of the sun energy. Frankincense was given to comfort his soul: because if you are born in a human body, I think it is quite hard to be embodied as a human, we have to deal with all these things, loss and grief, so the frankincense is mean to comfort... And myrrh keeps the connection to your spiritual world open, it always connects you to where you are actually from, so it's a great one to use for meditation.
And the frankincense it's an interesting one, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, they burn it to call on the spirit of the dead, to keep the soul connection open to something and help overcome the sadness. And myrrh is used to heighten awareness. They are ancient substances, and together, they synergize and amplify each other's effect.
When my father died, he was getting these homeopathic injections, instead of morphine, to ease his pain, not so much his physical pain, but the pain of letting go of life, which he didn't want to. And it was incredible to see how it made it easier for him. We would also put it on our hearts, and I was amazed to see how it all helped us so much. After I witnessed him die, this was 4 years ago, I came back and felt like I really needed to do something with this. It was so incredible, I couldn't let this go. And that Sacred Trinity Anointment Serum came out of that, which is basically a rescue remedy for all sorts of situations. When you feel overwhelmed, when you feel sick, even when you are hungover you can probably use it [laughing].
N: [laughing] From spiritual emergencies to hangover, now that's a broad spectrum!
J: Yes! And it also helps with travel sickness, so it really works for a lot of things.
I use the essential oil of frankincense and myrrh, but we also make our own resin extracts, which are also sun infused, so we have the whole spectrum.
Could you talk a bit about the reason why you don't use a lot of essential oils in your compositions?
C: There is one aspect which is ethical, and it's about sustainability. How many flowers do you need for a drop of essential oil? And it also doesn't take into account the whole plant. We are a holistic skincare company, it's a fractioned element. We prefer to use the whole plant, not only a tiny element from it. It does have its place in the world though, as an etheric kind of tuning fork, that's where it's great.
J: I think they are meant to be used more as an ethereal charge, to charge your aura, your soul. I find them incredibly beneficial for your awareness, when there is something about your aura. In German we do not call them essential oils, we call them "etheric oils", it's about the air, it really comes away from the body of the plant, and it is only the components that go across the distillation process that are the spirit part of it, so you are really separating the Spirit element from the Earth element. And actually they are not so beneficial for the skin, they can do more harm than good in concentrated form. When used in skincare they really have to be highly diluted in carrier oils etc. So that wasn't really going to be our way, it just never felt right, and it seemed a bit wasteful. And when we use them, I want them to be doing something to my aura. They have a place in aromatherapy, definitely, because your olfactory sense is where you meet them. But I actually find that you need so little, like the tiniest amount. Our dosages, we call them homeopathic quantities because they are like 0,001. And you can still feel them and smell them.
And the other reason is because it's not the whole plant, I don't like the separation so much.
Something that is quite unique to your formulations is the principle of three-fold compositions, could you talk a bit about that?
J: Basically it's using the forces of threes, like you got the ground, middle, up... again it's body, soul, spirit... in music as well... It really is a composition, you need the base and the middle to get to the heights. That kind of principle is used in perfumery, with base notes, heart notes and top notes. And the reason why it is so important is because it is how we experience things. If we are all in balance, we kind of have the whole spectrum, we get everything at once, and it's beautiful. But mostly we get the middle first, then the base drops and the ethereal is floating around… and maybe it comes together by then. It always felt true to me to create things with that aspect in mind. For me the human being is threefold, the body the soul and the spirit. We always talk about it, it is the Sacred Trinity again, it makes sense to keep that on, not as a theme or a concept, but truly as a guiding principle. You know, when you start drawing as a child, you draw the ground first, and then you draw the trees, and then the sun and the sky. It is the building up of something.
Is there anything you want to share about your plans for Lepaar in the future?
J: We just launched a coffee scrub. I didn't plan to do it, but one of our very good friends is a coffee roaster - he is the guy who travels to Ethiopia and all those beautiful countries, and he buys sustainable, fair trade coffee, directly from the farmers and basically brings it back on the plane, it's incredible! His coffee is the best coffee and he got all these leftovers, every day, so we thought that we should do something with it, that's how it started. Those kinds of collaborations, that's what we love... so I'm excited about that, because it is a byproduct, I like the sustainable aspect of it, that there is no waste. And I'm still working on the honey mask, but I am experimenting on how to overcome the fact of working with water. It will come out, but I just had to postpone it for a while.
And then, thanks to the wine making, we have this huge amount of leftover grapes and we are going to make something with it.
Again, at the moment we are really interested in collaborating with other people using leftovers... You know it is like that farm to table eating... It really is this idea of using everything, of not letting anything go to waste.
ALL PHOTOS BY NEIGE @GREENBEAUTYDIRECTORY