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Irene Forte Skincare — a Sicilian story on sustainability, texture, and efficacy

«In an over-saturated market, niche brands are emerging — the difference in price doesn’t imply the difference in quality». In conversation with Wellness Director of Rocco Forte Hotels and Sir Rocco Forte’s daughter Irene Forte

«I started with managing the spas in our hotels. My father didn’t want to let me invest in the physical space because of the costs — I decided to create a line of nine products for them, elements of the signature Rocco Forte rituals I brought to all of our spas».

Despite her background, Irene Forte’s first experience as a skincare professional was met with the challenges of any other entrepreneur in the industry: «The spas wanted the training support that an external brand would give them, but I didn’t have the money to do that. I wanted to get Rocco Forte Hotels to invest more in Forte Organics — but for them, it wasn’t a priority. It took me three years, but I finally started working on my own line and I launched just over a year ago». 

Italian cosmetic laboratories are renowned, but few of the skincare brands that these labs work for are Italian. Paying tribute to her roots, Irene Forte wanted a brand that was one hundred percent Italian and she set out to find a lab which would reflected her ethos in terms of sustainability and efficacy.

«I didn’t want a natural brand for the sake of being natural. I met with a number of labs who sort of resisted the idea of using our ingredients from the Verdura Resort, because of the increase in complexity and expenses that entails — there’s extraction and other techniques that make it a longer procedure than just buying ready-made ingredients from a supplier. Other labs I met didn’t have a doctor behind them. Then I met Dr. Ferri, who has been in the skincare business for over thirty-five years. She believes in organic cosmetics: clean products with locally sourced ingredients».

Olive trees, orange groves, and white-sand beaches surround the two-hundred hectares of Mediterranean coastline of the Verdura Resort, Sicily. Irene Forte, the youngest daughter of Sir Rocco Forte, spent almost a year taking care of it. For seven months, with no driving license, she spent her free days wondering around the resort’s organic farm and most of her evenings discussing the beauty world with the resort’s spa manager. Today, bells taken from a sixteenth-century foundry located near Verdura Resort signal the starting and end of each treatment. Volcanic stones from Mount Etna are used for wellness treatments while spatulas for spreading creams and ointments are made of Sicilian olive wood. 

«There’s no definition of clean skincare yet — nor of natural. You can say you’re organic if your products are only ten percent organic. Sustainability is even harder to obtain for brands. You’re adding twenty pence per piece on a bottle or box, and that means they lose millions in revenue. The minimum quantities for recycled or bioplastic are still high. For a brand like mine that’s just a start, it’s hard to get alternatives that don’t impact the environment as much. I favor glass and I’m launching refillables in September».

«The cosmetic world is responsible for a good part of pollution because of single-use plastic. Many brands lack authenticity and honesty. The market is oversaturated, but I also think there’s a shift: niche brands are growing and gaining market share. I don’t think that difference in price implies a difference in quality. The difference in price between products derives from the way the ingredients are extracted: techniques which are more costly and time-consuming which retain the more active part of the raw ingredients».

Irene Forte oversees the new concept creations and operations of the spas, with the on-site managers reporting to her every month. «We are moving to recycled paper and rethinking everything from energy output to waste. It’s taken time to convince my dad — as he’s seventy-four, it wasn’t at the forefront of his mind two years ago, but now his perception is shifting». 

The etiquette has it that you shouldn’t always be everywhere. People should be asking themselves Where are they? instead of saying Oh, there they are. Irene lives in a mix of metropolitan and village atmospheres of Notting Hill. She was born in the UK — her parents are Italian, but by now anglophone. They did instill Italian culture in their children, especially the mother, Lady Forte, who only moved to England after marrying and still holds on to her Italian accent. Irene’s family has Northern Italian roots, but it was Sicily that seduced her: «I’m getting married there. Foreigners underestimate Sicily and associate it with negative stereotypes. We now have a second property in Sicily, Villa Igiea in Palermo». 

Bought in 1899 from the English Admiral Sir William Domville by one of Sicily’s leading families, the Florio dynasty, Villa Igiea was then known as Villa Domville. Motivated by their daughter’s tuberculosis, Ignazio and Franca Florio planned to convert the building into a sanatorium, which would benefit from the Villa’s position in the Acquasanta region. However, plans changed and the couple decided to create a ­luxury hotel instead, one that would meet the standards of a new international generation of travelers.

The task of designing the hotel was assigned to Palermitan architect Ernesto Basile, pioneer of the Sicilian Liberty movement. The Hotel was inaugurated in the early 1900s, with the frescoed Salon Basile attracting Grand Tourers. As the Belle Epoque started to fade, the opening season of Villa Igiea and its club — Club des Etrangers — was met with a stream of journalists, artists, magnates, and royalties. In 1907, King Edward VII of England, Queen Alexandra, Princess Victoria, and the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna disembarked the Victoria & Albert yacht to have lunch at Villa Igiea and explore the attractions of Palermo. The last guest of note to stay at the hotel before the Great War was the King of Siam. The building was then requisitioned and used as a hospital. 

In the Fifties, after the Villa had been acquired by the Bank of Sicily, guests dressed in Pucci and Dior once again started flocking to the hotel to enjoy the gala nights. In the same period, Errol Flynn filmed Against Every Flag at the marina under Villa Igiea — the silver screen had discovered Palermo. Claudia Cardinale, Burt Lancaster, and Alain Delon stayed at the hotel while shooting The Leopard. In 2019 Villa Igiea was acquired by Rocco Forte Hotels some years first as Hilton and later as AccorHotels properties. 

Irene — pronounced the Italian way — feels Italian when she’s in England and English when she’s in Italy. Her childhood memories include Italian summers in Tuscany with her cousins, gathering pine nuts in the woods, breaking their shell, and then selling them on the side of the street. From the moment they turned sixteen, Irene Forte and her siblings spent their school holidays working in their father’s business, living in the hotels while at the same time experiencing first-hand the work of each department — housekeeping, kitchen, reception, concierge.

A chef is required to know how to do every single one of the tasks required in the kitchen — from dessert toppings to dishwashing. «This industry is about the people — Irene notes — and unless you understand how tough it is to work shifts and be on your feet the whole day, you can’t connect to them». 

Hotel de Russie was named by its first owner, Prince Giovanni Torlonia, after the Royal House of Russia. It drew the attention of all the artists who populate the history of modern art and classic literature — Hemingway, Stravinskij, Djaghilev, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso; the last two worked at the mise en scène of the first Cubist Ballet from the lobby of the de Russie. The Hotel was designed in 1814 by Giuseppe Valadier, it is ­located in the center of Rome Via del Babuino, rione Campo Marzio.

In the Forties, the hotel suffered from the military occupation that led to the deterioration of the building. Today, after having been used as headquarters by the Italian broadcasting company RAI, it is one of the properties on the Rocco Forte Hotels portfolio. The interiors have been redefined by architects Tommaso Ziffer and Olga Polizzi. Libraries, studios, large terraces, and a lot of green. This year restoration of the inner garden will bring it back to its original Valadier design.

 The British approach to hospitality is different than the Italian one: with less formality and prolixity, it is based on some kind of exchange ­between host and guest, a mutual expectation. «We do training on different personality types and on all sorts of emotional intelligence. When you have a guest in front of you, the way you behave must depend on what you get from that guest’s personality. One of my father’s least favorite questions, when he arrives in a hotel, is ‘how was your flight’. My dad answers ‘Is there something that I didn’t know that happened on my flight?’. Small talk isn’t appreciated».

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Effegilab — extraction methods and clean skincare

«Experience means knowing which part of the plant has which properties, for what purpose it can be used and which extraction method to use». In conversation with Effegilab founder Doctor Francesca Ferri

Effegilab is an Italian laboratory for the development of beauty and healthcare products, founded seventeen years ago by Doctor Francesca Ferri and a group of researchers in natural medicine for the treatment of degenerative illnesses. The idea was to produce nutritional supplements, but soon they were requested healthy cosmetics and cosmeceuticals, “healthy” meaning without preservatives, dyes or added chemicals. 

To navigate the world of cosmetics, one starts with the definitions. First of all, what is a cosmetic product? Cosmetics are defined not just by the dictionary, but also by law: the European Union describes a cosmetic product as “any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the various external parts of the human body… exclusively or mainly to clean them, perfume them, change their appearance and/or correct body odors and/or protect them or keeping them in good condition”. To which Dr. Ferri adds: «The product must preserve and in no way harm the health of its user and its skin».

By combining these two key concepts of beauty and health, you get the ethos of Effegilab: « The product must be pleasant — women touching it, smelling it and spreading it on their bodies must feel drawn to it – and its content must be clean, in the sense that it must not cause any kind of damage to the organism, not even after extended use on a daily basis, it must not contain any of those substances that can give problems on the long term. It must be respectful, of the human being and also of the animals and of the Earth. And of course, it must also be efficacious. It is a fact that such kind of products are, more often than not, natural products».

What is a natural cosmetic product? Here is where the lines start to blur – while there are laws that give a definition of cosmetics in general, there is still none of natural or of organic. On a broad level, natural cosmetics are products made with ingredients of plant origin, while organic cosmetics derive from plants grown in organic farms that limit pollution and use renewable energy. In this sense, the difference between the two is in the processing. However, it is enough for your product to be ten percent organic or natural for you to call it natural or organic – in this case, definitions don’t help.

What is a cosmeceutical? «A cosmeceutical is a cosmetic product with medicinal properties. This is not formally possible, as a cosmetic product is by definition not therapeutic — explains Doctor Ferri, — The products that we call cosmeceutics are cosmetics of high efficacy, products that fulfill maximum functionality without being medicinal. These kind of products can be used for treating skin problems, for example dermatitis and rashes.».

Effegilab covers everything from the conception of a product to its production on industrial scale: the prototyping, the phases of research and development needed to create product sampling, the stability tests that the product has to pass before going into production, the research into the best packaging. The lab, set in the northern Italian region of Trentino Alto Adige, produces both for its in-house label and for external brands. «For our own label, we mostly use local raw materials, that we either grow or purchase from organic farms in the Lake Garda region. For other brands, we source active principles throughout Italy».

Irene Forte launched her own skincare brand one year ago to carter for the spas in her father’s properties. She chose to collaborate with Dr. Ferri because of their shared ethos: natural skincare products with maximum efficacy and quality. For her brand, Irene Forte Skincare, Effegilab works with raw materials from the organic farm at Verdura Resort, in Sicily. «Irene has set up organic cultures in the Sicilian resort. In addition to this, the resort also produces its own certified organic wine and olive oil. She sends us the ingredients and we turn them into active principles for cosmetic use. Of course, one must consider that this brand doesn’t work with industrial production of, let’s say, 500.000 pieces per products that then get distributed in all supermarkets – what they wanted was a small, extremely high-quality production and this makes the use of organic ingredients easier and cost-effective. It’s a matter of choices» .

For each and every plant and active principle, the steps that lead to it becoming a cosmetic are different.«Experience means knowing which part of the plant has which properties, for what purpose it can be used and which extraction method to use». The extraction method and quality of the plants are what determine the product’s efficacy as well as its cost. «For every production, one must choose a method which also allows some kind of financial return. There are wonderful extraction processes, such as the use supercritical carbon dioxide, which allows you to extract the best possible ingredients in the cleanest of ways, but in the end the product will be very expensive» .

Supercritical carbon dioxide extraction is a method used to separate components from the plant and ensure their purity and safety. The physical properties of supercritical carbon dioxide can be manipulated without effort, which allows it to bond to any molecule the producer chooses. The complexity of the extraction system will vary depending on the batch size. This extraction process takes longer to complete than other methods, due to the fluctuations in temperature and pressure. 

One of the most frequently used extraction process within Effegilab is freeze-drying, which is done with automatic machines «You take the plant, which can also be fresh, freeze-dry it at -40 or -50 °C, pressurize it. The pressure eliminates all the water from the plant and leaves you with a powder extract. We use it to extract polyphenols from raspberries or grapes –some kind of red grapes contain lot of resveratrol which has strong immunomodulatory (anti-inflammatory) and anti-oxidant properties. The polyphenols within raspberries are called anthocyanins, they make excellent moisturizers».

Ten years ago, Effegilab developed a method — still classified — which allows to extract phito-melatonin from plants. At the moment, no other lab is capable of such extraction. Synthetic melatonin does not have any function as a cosmetic ingredient, while phito-melatonin oil activates anti-aging processes by acting directly on the user’s genes — an entirely new concept of cosmetics. 

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