From a first-generation Polish immigrant working in a skincare salon in New York City to the founder and CEO of a global skincare brand, Lydia Sarfati’s journey is nothing short of remarkable. She calls herself a “can-doer" and this has held her in good stead ever since she arrived in the US in 1970, escaping a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland to set up a new life. She has always looked for opportunities in challenging times, like choosing to set up her first salon in the heart of Manhattan in the middle of a recession.

As an early entrant in the field of skincare, Sarfati has helped innovate as well as set professional standards in the field of specialist skincare and cosmetology in the US. She pioneered the use of seaweed as a core ingredient much before it was declared a superfood. The Repêchage line of treatments addresses regular wellness as well as serious dermatological issues, and also works in collaboration with skin specialists. The brand, which entered India five years ago, is expanding its presence in clinical skincare (as with Kaya Skincare), salons and spas, while implementing Repêchage facial bars with prestigious brands. Sarfati was in Mumbai last month to launch two new Repêchage products and to present the keynote speech at 2017 Professional Beauty Mumbai, a beauty trade show. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did you enter the world of skincare and cosmetology?

I think my passion for skincare started when I was a child growing up in Poland. My mother would call cosmeticians to our home every Thursday night to attend to her skin and hair and our kitchen would transform into a magical room with all manner of pots and potions. It was then that I decided that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I did courses in cosmetology and skincare and was working in the industry right till we left Poland in 1969. After we arrived in America the following year, I started working at a skincare salon in New York and very soon I realized that although make-up and hair was very big in the US, skincare and the spa and wellness traditions of Eastern Europe didn’t really exist. And I remember thinking that this was a great opportunity, and it was with this in mind that I opened my first brand, Klisar Skin Care Center, in Manhattan in 1977.

It helped that this was the time that women in America were entering the workforce in a big way and needed to look and be at their optimum health. Also, the Condé Nast building was right next door and all the journalists became my clients and started writing about me, which brought new clients as well as salon owners to me, and everyone wanted to learn more about our products and techniques.

At first I wasn’t really interested in expanding my business because I was a new mother and already running a salon full-time. However, a skincare convention in Las Vegas changed my mind. When I came back, I realized the potential in the market and, after a lot of research, I launched Repêchage as a brand in July 1980.

Maine is known for its sustainable seaweed harvesting farms. Photo: iStockphoto
Maine is known for its sustainable seaweed harvesting farms. Photo: iStockphoto

How did you come up with the idea of seaweed as the core ingredient of your products?

In the mid-1970s, I visited Israel with my husband and we stayed at the kibbutzes, where I was amazed at their marvellous agricultural practices in the middle of the desert. And in my conversations with the farmers, I discovered that they used seaweed as a bio stimulant and fertilizer. Something clicked as I thought that if seaweed could do so much for arid soil, it must have obvious skincare benefits.

From that moment, I immersed myself in learning all about this aquatic plant. I also visited Brittany on the north-western coast of France where there are over 800 species of seaweed and a centuries-old culture of harvesting them. I met marine biologists and developers and we set up a R&D unit and launched our line of skincare products based on these seaweeds sourced from Brittany.

With the launch of Repêchage in July 1980, we brought the concept of thalassotherapy to the US. Seaweed still forms the basis of all our products and today we have our own harvesting outfit in Maine. To me, seaweed is a most wonderful plant that delivers all the nutrients required to sustain life on a cellular level.

Why has Repêchage done so well in Asian markets?

One of my first export clients was in Japan. It seemed to make perfect sense in that market as they ate seaweed and were perfectly okay putting it in their stomach as well as on their face. My first distributor in Tokyo was very successful. Interestingly enough, all my successful export markets were in Asia and included Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand. So while other countries were focusing on Europe, I looked at Asia, and it was purely by chance. In fact, when I went to the UK in the 1990s, they scoffed at the idea of seaweed products. So it just made sense for me to take my products to Asia as they understood my brand’s philosophy. Back then, I had no idea that this would be the future.

How do your treatments work in collaboration with dermatologists and plastic surgeons?

Some of our products are retailed at doctors’ chambers and our recommended procedures actually start six weeks before surgery. They are advised to come in once a week before surgery and thereafter they return for post-operative care. We help in preparing, healing and reconditioning the skin and our patented seaweed-based treatments help in increasing the skin’s micro circulation so that there is faster healing, less swelling and bruising. We also focus on exfoliation, hydration, and encouraging the skin’s collagen production to increase elasticity.

As an aesthetician who believes in a long-term approach rather than one-off treatments, what are your essential tips for skincare?

I have never approached beauty as cosmetics and make-up; rather, I have looked at it from the point of view of wellness. It is like taking out an insurance policy to look good decades from now. I am someone who believes that in order to have beautiful skin in every decade of our lives, right from the 20s into our 80s or 90s, there is a need to take care of it on a daily basis. And for me, this is much more than caring for the face, as our skin is the largest organ of our body which sends all the sensory impulses to the brain. A few basic things that I tell all my clients are dry-brushing their skin before a shower, which helps increase circulation. After a shower, it is important to massage your skin from head to toe. For your face, you need to set up a daily routine depending on your skin type, but the basic steps should always include cleansing, exfoliation, hydration and protection. Cosmetic interventions like injections, medicines, lasers and other technologies are not as effective if done alone without the combination of good skincare. And good skincare is not about cover-ups: rather, it is about revitalizing what we are born with.

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