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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.Photos by Rebecca Dale
Yael Alkalay, the founder of beauty brand Red Flower, sold her first product to Barneys in 1999, at a time when juice cleanses and organic face scrubs were favored among a select, curious few. Now, almost fifteen years later, the beauty business has caught up with Yael's collections of natural, plant-based products that include mushrooms, arctic berries, and a slew of other amazing ingredients sourced from Northern Finland.
While discussing her Nolita store on Prince Street (which has a fascinating history dating back to the Prohibition!), Yael touched on everything one might want to know about the best practices in beauty and skincare, including one of the founding principles of Red Flower: why what you put into your body matters just as much as what you put on it.
What made you want to start Red Flower? How did those ideas grow and evolve—or maybe even change—since you first started?
We officially stepped into the world in December of 1999. We sold our first candle to Barneys and they launched with a set of six candles and three teas. The intention of the company was clear from the get-go, and it came from such a personal place that I've been able to sustain that underlying mission while always evolving.
For me, there was a central value that I wanted to put in the beauty world: being very connected to your emotions and being present in the moment, and bringing a shift in attitude and awareness as you go through the daily motions—whatever that may be, from bathing to combing your hair. There's also a place in all of those daily actions for greater pleasure and a bigger impact on health. To me, this is as much about health and well-being and a way of living life as it is about beauty.
I think that's very central to the way we create products, choose distribution partners, and thinks about our mission as a store. So much of why this matters to me is the community that we touch. So even though I don't see myself as a retailer per se, I think it's important to have a place where people can come and experience not only the products themselves, but to be in a place that's welcoming, warm, honest, present, and real—somewhere where you can relax and escape for a moment.
I was very fortunate to grow up with a family that comes from all over the world. My mother's from Argentina, my father's from Bulgaria, they grew up in Israel, my grandmother is from Turkey, my other grandparents were from Russia. We all have different passports, and between my parents they spoke nine languages. I traveled my whole life and spent five years in Japan working for Shiseido as a creative director. I came back and went to business school at Columbia. While I was in school, I was skiing in Courchevel, France, and I had a small stroke. I had no idea. It was way up in the Alps, and I lost the ability to speak and the use of my arm.
Somehow, and now years later looking back, I understand why, but at that moment there was a real sense of clarity. I can't say I would want to have another stroke to tap into it, but it was, in a way, a real gift. It was a gift to see my life in a totally different way and to see that it was my duty to take all of the things that I recognized as being basic and central to living a full life and tell that story of being in the moment, feeling the things you feel, and living your life in the most positive and full way that you can. The only way I knew how to do that was through products that tell that story.
My background is in cosmetics, my family background is in pharmacy and farming, and so all of those components of understanding how to make things sort of came along. It's not as if Red Flower popped into my brain one day—it's was that need to share the feeling and the underlying emotion of being cared for and pursuing a full and healthy path.
Do you feel that, at the time when you started the company, that was lacking in the beauty industry?
It was definitely lacking. Things happen so fast, and I feel like at that point other influences for me were still new to the New York market—things like yoga, juices, and chai tea. One of the things we launched with were flower teas, but the concept of ingesting health and ingesting beauty was a very new concept. I remember having to explain a lot of things that were really new and groundbreaking to people. Things like acupuncture; now everyone does it, but thirteen years ago nobody looked at those alternatives, and now they're mainstream.
I launched a line called Hamam and no one even knew what a hamam was. Now there are five hamams in New York. For me, innovation is so central to what we do, and I feel like it's my obligation to continue push the envelope of how people perceive beauty. It's really about finding that place that people haven't entirely tapped into and pushing that piece so that men and women see themselves differently.
You were the first to do a luxury organic fragrance, correct?
We were, yes! We were the first to put a luxury organic fragrance on the market. I remember when Chandler Burr, who was at that time the New York Times perfume critic, asked, "What's the point of having a natural perfume," and then he fell in love with it. That really bridged a path between scent, which we are known for, and this sort of luxury craftsmanship of perfume, and to be able to do something that today is so commonly done through synthetics in a way that is that much rare and pure.
Are there any particular products that resonate with a lot of your customers?
I feel like there are so many different types of customers for Red Flower, and I feel like you can create something and know that people will have a personal item. One of the things on the candle boxes that I really feel is so true to our brand is, "True indulgence is personal and takes a lifetime," and so it's this idea that we are on the path with you.
We have so many things in our line that have incredible benefits that we could be shouting about—you know, that "this will change your life." My feeling is that people deserve a chance to get to know you, and that it's our role to create the very best product quality and experience that we can so that you can experience it in a way that is deepest for you personally. We have a range of customers that are die-hard loyalists that can't live without their Icelandic Moonflower body lotion, and if it's out of stock we have to call Barneys and ask for it.
We're definitely part of the neighborhood, so people who come in to Whole Foods to pick up their groceries come in to Red Flower to pick up their [beauty needs]. In terms of more specific products that I feel we just can't be out of stock on—ever—that would probably be the Carbon Amber Oil. Especially when the season changes, because it's very warming to the skin. It also stimulates your brainwave activity.
The other pieces we have to always have are the Indian Jasmine candle, and our Italian Blood Orange body wash, shampoo, and conditioner. Another thing that's super special to people is our line called Nature. I feel like, for people in an urban environment, it's an access point to the outdoors. Everything we do is 100% natural, and we use all essential oils. We source ingredients from the Northern part of Finland, and it's one of the most pristine places in the whole world. When you open up a jar of the product and inhale, you really feel like you've gone some place else.
Do you think you would ever want to open another location in the city? Or are you happy with the home base here?
I think this place is unique in that it's so much the fabric of the neighborhood. We've been here for at least twelve years, and this particular neighborhood in New York has incredible history to it. Our basements on this whole block are connected, so every single door opens to another door. This used to be a club called The Three Penguins, and when we did the initial renovation, I found out that it was used during the Prohibition to run guns and alcohol. It definitely has this secrets-of-New York quality to it, and I think in that way Nolita is a very different neighborhood than any other neighborhood in New York.
I've been spying empty store spaces further downtown that nobody would ever find, which is kind of ideal in some way. I do feel like part of our future is definitely based on the fact that we like to get to know people and we like to be involved in the neighborhood in a real way. The kind of service that you have in a store is unique from anything else. I feel the urge [to open] more locations, but it has to be done in a way that's authentic.
You've probably have seen the neighborhood change a ton since being here.
Yeah, definitely! It's a wild west in terms of how much it's changing, but that's New York, right? I lived in the Meatpacking District for ten years. I was there when there were banjo players and metal studios, and by the time I moved out there was all this luxury retail around. Now I'm living in Chinatown and it actually feels like it may never change—people are really embedded there. Here in this neighborhood, because of the scale, it seems to retain its personality.
Do you think there's a disconnect between the dermatology industry, and beauty brands like yours? It's certainly rare to visit a dermatologist and get recommendations for products that are 100% natural.
I think that not only speaks to dermatology, but to the whole [medical] field. My dad was a doctor and my grandfather was the first dermatologist in Bulgaria. I wanted to be a doctor and my father was like, "Don't." He said the system doesn't allow for people to care for people in the way that they would want to. I feel that even a doctor with the best intentions has their hands tied because of the way the system is set up.
I think that there is a movement toward a more integrated approach to medicine, and as for the idea of a more holistic view of the human body—including skin—the day is coming. People feel frustrated, and feel that there must be a deeper reason for why these things are happening. We try to talk about the inner portion of how you feel and look on the Red Flower website. What are the ingredients that you consume and how does that affect your skin? What are the physical choices that you make and how much water do you drink? At this point, it's really up to the individual to try to be as knowledgeable as possible.
I myself go to the dermatologist—I love the sun—and hear the same roster of options of what you can do, and never a push toward finding a different perspective. Never like, "What type of vitamins are you taking?" It's just not there yet. I think hopefully it's going get there, though. I do feel like people will demand it, because they realize what you put into your body and what you eat has an impact on how you look. Someday. For now, you can just read everything there is to know about mushrooms on redflower.com, right?!
I wanted to ask you that—what's happening with mushrooms that's so beneficial for your skin?
Mushrooms are incredible for your skin! I think the primary piece of why mushrooms are so beneficial is because they are one of the few things that can genuinely boost your immune system. They can shift your ability to develop and recover cells in the body. It's one of the few things that's potent enough to be used in AIDS medication. So to start applying that to the surface of the skin, it actually helps with collagen recovery, and it can help with cellular turnover. In terms of skin damage and environmental damage, there are few things that can actually repair the skin in that way.
We have a product that combines the potency of mushrooms with the force of seven different types of arctic berries that includes strawberries, cranberries, and cloudberries, which are very high in fatty acids. The products that have the mushrooms and the berries in them are the things in the Nature line. There's a Bioactive Berry Omega White Peet Exfoliant that's very rich in mushrooms.
That's what we're talking about when we're talking mushrooms—I got so many e-mails from my friends like, "Woohoo, Yael! Magic mushrooms!" We didn't touch upon that part of mushrooms, but if that's what you were asking you're not alone. Like, "Whats up with the mushrooms, Yael?"
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