Not content with pioneering the successful wellness program across her family’s Rocco Forte Hotel chain, Irene Forte has created an entire line of B Corp certified products using ingredients from one of their hotel’s organic gardens in Italy. With her Scientific Director Dr. Francesca Ferri – a pioneer in the medical use of plant extracts to treat skin conditions – Irene has introduced novel ingredients into products which have shown profound results in independent clinical and user trials.
The Irene Forte Brand
Tell us a little more about your background and the inspiration behind the brand
After graduating from Oxford University, I completed a 6-month development programme at Brown’s Hotel, London. This experience allowed me to work with various departments within the hotel. From here, I joined the Rocco Forte Hotels’ central team as Quality Standards Executive.
I initially helped determine the brand standards, which included a new service philosophy and values. I was then awarded £250k in government funding to create a careers and development tool for the hospitality industry, leading to the ‘Map My Future’ app at Rocco Forte Hotels.
While still overseeing elements of learning and development for the hotels, I also noticed that there was no unified approach towards the spas and so I was allowed to create Rocco Forte Spas, which included a new spa philosophy, and fitness and nutrition offerings. I was always very passionate about wellness.
Work for the spas then led me to come up with the idea to launch a skincare line. I saw the opportunity for natural and experiential formulations to be improved by scientific insight, and that I started to think about uniting the group’s spas with a product range. I had the perfect base from which to start a natural line with our organic farm in Sicily, but I knew that I needed a brilliant scientific mind to help me formulate.
After a lot of research in Italy, I came across my formulator in early 2014: Dottoressa Francesca Ferri, who had started formulating clean cosmetics and food supplements over 35 years ago. Her philosophy lined up with mine, and I thought that she was the perfect fit to help me bring a ‘natural skincare line made better by the guidance of science’ to life. After a number of years of development, as well as then trying and testing them with elite spa professionals at Rocco Forte Spas, we launched:
- Natural, clinically proven formulations inspired by the Mediterranean diet, using ingredients grown at our organic farm in Sicily
- Products that combine outstanding fragrance and feel with low allergenic potential (we use a lab-formulated allergen-screened fragrance, and the products are certified for sensitive skin)
- A brand with sustainability at its heart (we are B Corp certified and accredited by Positive Luxury)
A year after launching, I left my full-time role at Rocco Forte Hotels to focus on my brand.
What have been the highs and lows of your rigorous B Corp certification journey?
We built sustainability into our company’s DNA from its inception; it was not simply an afterthought, and we consider environmental and social impact with every decision we take. This made the B Corp certification journey easier, as we passed the 80-point threshold the first time we answered the (over) 300 questions on governance, workers, communities, and impact on the environment.
More than anything, the process was just time-consuming. However, I’m proud that we earned an overall score of 99.5, significantly above the median completion score of 50.9 and the pass threshold of 80.
As a sustainability pioneer in the cosmetics industry, how did you work around some of the existing challenges in the space?
Packaging is one of the biggest challenges. The cosmetic industry is the biggest user of single-use plastic. Fact. Zero Waste reported that more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, most of which are not recyclable.
Making packaging sustainable is not completely straightforward. It is much more costly, and minimum order quantities are very high for sustainable alternatives. When I first launched minimum order quantities for certain sustainable options were too high for me, and I had little flexibility to do anything bespoke. As we grew, we tweaked the aesthetics of our packaging and made it even more green.
Our bottles and jars are now made of recyclable glass, where up to 31% of each glass product is made out of PIR (post-industrial recycled material). All our 30ml and 50ml products are now refillable. The glass bottles contain a bio-based plastic component, which can be recycled through our recycling programme with a company called First Mile. The refill components are then sold separately, and they contain less packaging to the full products (no liners, just FSC paper boxes).
For the recycling programme:
- There is a QR code on the full retail product (and refill) box which takes customers to a page explaining how to recycle the refill component. When you finish the product, you keep the pump, lid and glass bottle and recycle the plastic refill component (and just repurchase a new refill)
- For our products that are not refillable (10ml, 15ml & 200ml), the glass bottles and jars are recyclable, and then lids and pumps will also be recycled via the program.
- We’ve made the recycling part easy by partnering with First Mile: they will recycle the refillable components, as well as the ‘hard-to-recycle’ non-refillable product lids and pumps, shredding them into flakes, which are then converted into plastic pellets to make new plastic products for things such as car parts and pipes
The boxes continue to be made out of 100% recycled fibres with vegetable-based inks. We have now also introduced new watercolour inner liners, in 100% recycled board, painted by an artist based in the North of Italy.
Tell us a little more about the Lady Garden Foundation that you support
We love supporting local charities and The Lady Garden Foundation is such a great cause, helping to raise awareness of gynaecological cancers amongst young women and break the taboo of the topic. We pledged that £1.50 of every Pomegranate Hand Cream sold globally would be donated to the charity and we are delighted about our ongoing partnership with them,
What has the transition from hospitality to cosmetics been like?
It was a very tough decision for me to stop being a full-time employee with my family’s business in hospitality so that I could focus on my skincare. I love the hospitality industry and am very attached to Rocco Forte Hotels. I worked in the industry for nine years!
Cosmetics is a totally different industry, and it has been a great challenge to learn how it works. Nevertheless, I learnt a lot about business while working for Rocco Forte Hotels. I was allowed to get my teeth into all sorts of projects for the company, as well as being able to sit in on the Executive Committee so that I could understand all aspects of how the business was run. I was allowed to be very entrepreneurial. This set me up very well for running my own business.
What are some of your favourite products from the range right now, and what’s yet to come?
I love all the products for different reasons. However, if pressed, I would probably say my favourite is the Hibiscus Night Cream. With the Hibiscus Night Cream, in an independent consumer trial on over 80 volunteers, we achieved astonishing results at just 10 days (which got even better at four weeks). At 10 just days:
- 100% agree their skin was more hydrated
- 95% agree their skin healthier
- 88% agree their skin was more restored
- 77% agree their skin was already more youthful
It contains Myoxinol™ from Hibiscus Seeds, which scavenges free radicals and smooths wrinkles. The Tetra-Ceramide Complex replenishes the skin’s barrier to reduce dryness, while the Green Pea Polypeptides encourage Collagen and Elastin synthesis. Hyaluronic Acid hydrates the skin to full plumpness.
I also love the other two Myoxinol™ products- the Hibiscus Serum and Prickly Pear Face Cream. The Hibiscus Serum contains a unique combination of Green Pea Polypeptides and a novel Tetrapeptide, which work with Myoxinol™ to help boost Collagen and Elastin for visibly reduced fine lines and wrinkles.
A Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Acid hydrates and plumps, while omega-rich Olive Oil and a Tetra-Ceramide Complex nourish and protect the skin’s natural moisture barrier. The Prickly Pear Face Cream contains the anti-wrinkle Myoxinol™, but it also contains Prickly Pear Polysaccharides that have been discovered to have potent antioxidant activity and to calm the skin.
They also act like Hyaluronic Acid to moisturise the skin. Olive Oil and Rice Fractions, rich in skin-enhancing nutrients, and a Multi-Vitamin Supplement (A, Pro-B5, C + E) provide additional antioxidant activity as they nourish and protect. All three products are great for all skin types, and are even clinically approved for sensitive skin.
Our latest launch is the Lavender collection – three lightweight yet luxurious products perfect for summer. The range comprises Lavender Face Cream with Glutathione, Lavender Tetra-Acid Mask and Lavender Foam Cleanser. All products have Lavender and Rosemary water as active ingredients which are full of antioxidants, purifying and soothing.
What are your top holistic skincare tips or myth busters?
I think you need to have a 360-degree approach to have good skin. These are some of the pillars I live by:
- Sleep: I sleep 8.5 hours per night, and I never jeopardise sleep for work. For great tips on sleep, I read ‘Why We Sleep?’ by Matthew Walker
- Diet: I believe having a healthy and balanced diet is vital for both mind and body. I’ve grown up on a Mediterranean diet, so lots of fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats. Hence why I also like to talk about feeding the skin and having the Mediterranean Diet for Skin
- Exercise: endorphins, blood flow, healthy joints. I exercise four times per week
- Meditation: there are so many scientific studies showing the benefits of Meditation, such as reducing cortisol and adrenaline, and replacing it with dopamine and serotonin. I did a Vedic meditation course (comes from the Veda, the source of yoga, meditation, and Ayurvedic medicine in India). I’m not great at doing this daily, but it’s a useful tool when I’m under high stress
- Skincare Regime: I, of course, have a great skincare routine, and do regular facials and at-home rituals. I believe in psycho-cosmetics, so if a product smells and feels amazing, it gives you an added benefit. This is part of the reason why I formulated such experiential products
In terms of skincare myth busters, I would say that natural skincare is not necessarily kinder on the skin. Many natural products are fragranced with essential oils. Essential oils contain potentially irritating allergens like citral, linalool, and farnesol.
Avoiding these common sources of irritation in ‘natural’ products is a key objective of our product development process. That’s why our fragrances have been screened to trace levels for all of the 26 fragrance allergens that EU law regards as potentially harmful. All 26 of these allergens are now required by EU law to be flagged on the ingredients panel, but you’ll never find any of them on our list.
Your scientific director is a pioneer in the medical use of plant extracts for skin conditions, can you share some of their key insights and results?
Dr. Ferri has been formulating for over 35 years; she:
- Discovered the medical benefits of extracts from Mahonia Aquifolium in the treatment of dermatitis and psoriasis.
- Developed a methodology for extracting resveratrol from red grapes, which has pronounced antioxidant activity and is used in the treatment of psoriasis and dermatitis.
- Developed an innovative dermatological line using avenanthramides, vitamin E and vitamin F to treat atopic dermatitis.
- Discovered a way to extract melatonin from plants. This type of melatonin, known as Phytomelatonin, has been shown to have extraordinary breakthrough potential in anti-ageing cosmetics. We are launching a product with this proprietary ingredient in 2023.
Amongst the formulation breakthroughs that Dr. Ferri has led us to:
- Using Myoxinol™ to reduce wrinkles. Extracted from Hibiscus Esculenta Seeds, Myoxinol™ acts like Botulinum toxin to smooth laughter lines, crow’s feet and frown lines. Myoxinol™ is found in our Hibiscus Night Cream, Prickly Pear Face Cream and Hibiscus Serum.
- Using Pistachio Oil to hydrate and help renew the skin. Omega 3, 6 & 9 Pistachio Oil deeply moisturises the skin while promoting cellular renewal. It’s found in our Pistachio Face Mask and Pistachio Lip Balm.
- Protecting and moisturising with Prickly Pear Polysaccharides. Produced from prickly pear leaves harvested in Sicily, the polysaccharides in our Prickly Pear Face Cream and Prickly Pear Body Cream act like Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate the skin, and also help to reduce skin inflammation.
How does this compare to some of the equivalent synthetic or pharmaceutical derivates available?
I don’t think it’s about comparing synthetic and pharmaceutical derivates with natural. Each of our 75, or so, active ingredients have been chosen to work in harmony with each other and to complement the body’s natural biochemistry.
We look for active ingredients that are already naturally present in the skin or for biomimetic ingredients, which helps to ensure that they are biocompatible and exceptionally skin friendly.
The concentration and combination of ingredients in each formulation are then scientifically optimised to deliver the most benefit while avoiding any harmful side effects. Our knowledge of the science of skincare makes it possible to formulate products that are both highly effective and gentle on the skin.
What is the overarching mission of the business in 1 sentence?
To provide ‘Natural Science’ products that combine outstanding fragrance and feel with low allergenic potential and proven effectiveness.
Building Better Businesses
How was the business fundraising process for you?
Fundraising was new to me, and so I certainly found it challenging. It involved a lot of time and planning, but it really allowed me to understand the business potential. I also met with a lot of interesting individuals and funds that challenged me and taught me a lot.
What unforeseen challenges and opportunities have arisen?
I ended up with the best strategic angel investor I could have asked for, who has been indispensable in helping me drive the business forward. The challenge in a start-up is that if you’re growing one raise is never enough! I’m now starting to work on my next raise.
When you first launched, what brought the most traction and momentum for you? And what hasn’t worked so well?
When I first launched the concept of the ‘Mediterranean Diet for Skin’ bought a lot of traction and momentum. All press articles mentioned this concept, and consumers seemed to understand it.
The Mediterranean diet is, after all, widely considered to be the cleanest, healthiest and most balanced in the world. Far from a faddy trend, the Mediterranean diet is enjoyed by all those who want the benefits of a long and healthy life, based on healthy oils and unprocessed goodness.
In the same way that the Mediterranean diet promotes good health from the inside out, we found the nutrient-dense ingredients to be deeply beneficial when applied from the outside in; supplying the skin with a wealth of vitamins, fatty acids, and antioxidants to help nourish, rejuvenate, and protect. The Hibiscus Night Cream was also immediately our top-seller. It makes up (and always has made up) approximately 25% of our sales.
When I launched the brand, I launched 26 products at once. Given that I was launching in spas, I needed something to cater for all skin types and requirements. However, launching so many products at once was a mistake. It made it hard to have a USP for each product and made it hard for consumers to fully understand the range. Since repackaging the line, we have reformulated certain products, discontinued some, and invested more heavily in clinical, laboratory and consumer trials for our hero products.
What’s the smallest change that’s given the biggest return?
There hasn’t been a very small change that has given a big return so to speak. However, what has really amazed me is the uptake on our refills since introducing our refillable products. 30% of a refillable product’s sales on our e-Commerce site are refills.
Do any customers use or benefit from the products in ways you didn’t expect?
Yes, the Almond Face Scrub often gets used as a mask-scrub. I didn’t expect this, but it has some fantastic ingredients to hydrate and reboot the skin, such as Aloe Leaf Juice, Hyaluronic Acid, and a mix of omega-rich oils (3, 6 & 9), so applying a generous layer and leaving it for 10 minutes makes perfect sense. Then, the almond and hazelnut granules in the scrub can be worked to exfoliate need areas. It can then be washed off.
Formulating A Founder
What motivates you?
Doing something I’m passionate about and believe in. Seeing my team around me grow.
What has been your biggest lesson, fear, or failure?
I don’t think I have had one particular big failure or life lesson. I have made lots of mistakes along the way. I think the important thing is to learn from your mistakes, be resilient and adapt where necessary.
Do you have a mentor or people you ask for advice?
Yes, my father is a fantastic mentor, as is my angel investor.
If you did not have your own company, what would you be doing?
I would be working in hospitality.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My weakness is mastering my work-life balance. My strength is probably that I’m extremely focused and resilient.
How has what you do changed you as a person?
I used to get very stressed. I would also get very upset when things went wrong. I have become much more resilient and know that things going wrong in life is just part of the journey / a learning curve.
What does spirituality mean to you?
For me, spirituality is about having a connection to something that is unseen and intangible. It helps provide a sense of purpose for life.
If time and money were no object – what would be on your to do and to see list?
A few years back I went trekking in the Himalayas in search of snow leopards. Despite having to camp for 10 days in -20•C, it was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had; we also managed to sight two snow leopards. If time and money were no object, I would travel the world, and do more adventures.