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Is there too much fear in the beauty industry? Red Flower’s founder says yes


Photo: Red Flower
Photo: Red Flower
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In this week’s Fit For Business, Well+Good’s co-founder and publisher Alexia Brue sits down with Yael Alkalay, founder and CEO of pioneering natural beauty brand Red Flower.

Yael Alkalay and I first meet in 2003, shortly after my book on global bathing traditions was published. We immediately bonded over the curative power of water, scent, and rituals involving steam and hinoki wood; I marveled at her genius ability to translate these exotic local traditions into products for the brand’s Hammam and Japan lines. For example, the scent of Red Flower’s yuzu body wash transports me back instantly to the onsens of Beppu—and for that, I thank her.

Since launching in 1998 (a time when access to organic ingredients was limited, beauty and wellness felt siloed—not integrated—and hardly anyone understood the idea of ingestible beauty), the Red Flower portfolio has expanded beyond the teas, petal-topped candles, and bathing products it began with into skin care, aromatherapeutic body oils, and collaborations with tastemakers including Baron Von Fancy.

The consistent thread throughout is an obsession with scent and its power to transport and to cure. “For me, it’s about offering a product experience that can create a small, lasting shift in everyday habits and encourage people to feel more present and filled with potential throughout the day,” Alkalay explains. Red Flower has also created spa protocols for the top spas across the world, making it a truly experiential brand that has a cult-like devotion.

Here, Alkalay dishes about the challenges of being ahead of the curve—and why a key decision shaped her company’s distribution strategy.

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Red Flower bio
Photo: Instagram/RedFlowerNYC

What inspired you to start Red Flower?

I think we overlook the therapeutic power of a curative bath, the decompression that comes from inhaling fresh flowers, the holistic benefits that result from concentrated natural ingredients delivered through traditional application techniques.

I was compelled to put these ideas into practice and to recognize their power through a health scare while at Columbia University [where she got her MBA]. I had a ski accident that caused a stroke—it was like a total sensory recall, and at that young age I came to quickly understand the power of touch and scent when a friend came to visit me at the hospital and washed my hair with a super-minty shampoo. I can still feel her strong hands on my scalp and the awakening I felt inhaling the scent of the mint—it was the only thing that lifted me back to health. This inspired me to launch Red Flower and to create a new concept of beauty that incorporates well-being in every aspect of the product experience.

“I can still feel her strong hands on my scalp and the awakening I felt inhaling the scent of the mint—it was the only thing that lifted me back to health.”

What were the unforeseen challenges early on?

We were so ahead of the beauty wellness curve when I first launched Red Flower that one of our biggest challenges was managing inventory in our ingestible certified organic flower infusions. While the specific health and beauty benefits were incredible, it turned out that the Barneys customer—where Red Flower launched—just wasn’t ready for ingestible beauty. Fortunately, we also launched with our now-iconic petal-topped candles, which had an immediate cult-like following because of the generous oils, the luxurious, curative scent, and the ritualistic beauty of the petals.

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Red Flower business story
Photo: Instagram/RedFlowerNYC

How did you decide whether to bootstrap the business, seek angel investors, or take VC money?

I believe that our decision to be independent has allowed us to carefully construct a powerful, authentic brand based on true quality of ingredients and integrity of experience. We have our own manufacturing, formulating, and sourcing facility in greater New York to make distinct products with potent, concentrated natural ingredients focused on life-long radiance and delivering a true boost to a harried world.

These significant capabilities and lasting, positive impact do not happen overnight. I was extremely fortunate to raise $250K in seed capital from Columbia University to get Red Flower off the ground with a first hire and nine products. I’m honored and grateful for the standards to which I have been held as a founder and CEO, and the possibilities that their initial investment has afforded me in changing the beauty landscape.

“This was a big investment and a big risk, but was so aligned with our intentions around beauty as health and healing that it came together seamlessly.”

Can you tell us about a key decision you made that was a turning point for Red Flower, but that frankly could have gone either way?

Our decision to expand on our strengths in luxury retail and enter into the destination spa and wellness channel over a decade ago was a tremendous step—it required us to not only make everything available in professional sizes, but to have a full therapist team to train aestheticians and massage therapists on our signature protocols. This was a big investment and a big risk, but was so aligned with our intentions around beauty as health and healing that it came together seamlessly.

We see Red Flower as a vehicle to share life skills that can have a positive impact throughout the day—whether it’s taking a moment to light a candle and reset your mood, or to get a glow from Red Flower Cardamom Amber Oil by stimulating circulation from toes toward the heart, or taking the time to immerse yourself into a full seven-step Red Flower hammam that is a totally regenerative, detoxifying retreat.

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Red Flower NYC
Photo: Instagram/RedFlowerNYC

What are your biggest distribution channels?

I deeply believe in education versus fear—so much of the beauty industry focuses on scare tactics, condescension, and playing on insecurities. We offer an empowering voice that is very focused on educating our customer to experience the whole process, to learn new life skills, and to understand Red Flower products from a holistic standpoint.

[That means] integrating what we learn through our truly omni-channel approach, which includes forward-thinking, clean beauty-focused speciality retailers like ABC Carpet & Home and Credo Beauty, and our global destination spa, wellness, and on-demand massage channel (including the Greenwich Hotel Shibui Spa,  Eau Spa, Canyon Ranch at Sea, The Pearl, Spa Adolphus at the Adolphus Hotel, The Watergate Argentta, and Miraval). There, we work with deeply knowledgeable wellness practitioners who value the power of integration between touch and ingredients, and together we are able to directly share valuable healing and beauty techniques for ongoing at-home practice.

“I deeply believe in education versus fear—so much of the beauty industry focuses on scare tactics, condescension, and playing on insecurities.”

This experience-driven connection makes our most significant trajectory in the direct channel very dynamic—we have an extraordinary Red Flower boutique on 13 Prince Street in Manattan that’s a real community destination and a kind of scent sanctuary, and redflower.com is so mobile and service-friendly. We have very relevant distribution plans in the pipeline; Red Flower is building on its momentum in exciting new ways.

Wha advice would you give another entrepreneur in the wellness space?

Listen, lead by example, be optimistic, believe in hard work, find pleasure in daily accomplishments, be open, [remember that] even the most subtle details matter, and persevere.

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Red Flower Fit for Business
Photo: Instagram/RedFlowerNYC

A business owner’s to-do list is always long. Please share your favorite efficiency hack.

Scent is my hack—I light a Red Flower ocean candle at my desk and the scent of the essential oils and bright flame motivate me and keep me calm and focused.

As a busy CEO, what nourishes and inspires you?

Family. Friendships—a friend, Brenda Shaughnessy, just published another book of incredible poems, So Much Synth, and I keep rereading the poem “I Have a Time Machine”—that inspires me. Nature, flowers, the ocean. The clothes of Maria Cornejo, she understands and loves women unlike any other designer. Strong women—my mother for sure, with her incredible optimism and lust for life. My daughter, and her commitment and passion to horses, friends, knowledge, her self-assurance. The incredible girl power of the Red Flower talent-filled team. The flower arrangements of Meta Flora by Marisa Competello.

“The chance of a lifetime comes once a week.”

Getting strong with Simone de La Rue, yoga practice with Alex Auder, running with Debora Warner at Mile High Run Club, the entire spa and wellness community founded by the Three Marys—Mary Bemis, Mary Elizabeth Gifford, and Mary Tabacchi—and the great wellness executors Catherine Warren, Kassi Buscher, Sandra Foyil, Jeannie Jarnot, China Paradelo, Kim Kelder, Ella Hirsch, and Cecilia Hercik.

The politicians Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama. The potter Beatrice Wood, the artist Rachel Libeskind, my neighbor and collaborator Laura Currie, and the words of my favorite Columbia Business School professor Clifford Schorer, passed on from his dad: “The chance of a lifetime comes once a week.” I couldn’t agree more.

Welcome to Fit for Business, a column from Well+Good’s co-founder and publisher Alexia Brue, that takes you behind-the-scenes with the most successful healthy-living entrepreneurs around the world, so you can learn what inspires them, what challenges them, and what it’s like to work in the (booming) wellness space.

For more entrepreneurial advice, learn why SLT’s founder Amanda Freeman thinks you should trust your gut, or why Brooks’ CEO is a big believer in bold decisions.