Italian Renaissance: Local Beauty Brands Rise in Shifting Landscape

·12 min read

Isn’t Italy on everyone’s bucket list?

The country is historically rooted in beauty — artistic, architectural, environmental and cosmetic. Sales of Italian beauty products hit 11.8 billion euros in 2021, an increase of almost 10 percent. And it is home to leading beauty suppliers, which manufacture more than 60 percent of the makeup products distributed by international cosmetics brands in Europe and over half of the makeup distributed worldwide, according to Cosmetica Italia’s data.

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Yet this heritage and know-how have rarely resulted in local blockbuster brands — even less so in powerhouses or conglomerates that compete internationally — as the domestic industry has always been an archipelago of small- to medium-sized labels.

But as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated digitalization and e-commerce, and local consumers became increasingly familiar with online shopping and curious about niche brands, a new generation of entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to compete and ultimately try to change the paradigm that historically pigeonholed Italian beauty players.

With a new wave of indie, digital-native and Instagram-friendly brands rising in Italy, a whole regional movement is finding fertile ground at home and possibly abroad, pioneered by brands like of Penelope Skin, Milanesi Skincare and Reizia. Niche labels that have always been close to their respective regions, promoting the local lifestyle and basing their formulations on native ingredients, are gaining new resonance and paving the way for emerging brands taking the same approach.

This global to local trend isn’t happening only in Italy. Propelled by the pandemic, consumers’ willingness to support local players and their increasingly eco-conscious mind-set, companies with zero-kilometer supply chains, natural formulations and support of local communities, smaller brands are becoming increasingly big. With the “people over profit” mentality gaining traction among younger consumers, these brands are gaining extra points for authenticity compared with bigger beauty players.

In a report released last year, market research provider Euromonitor International had already started tracking the phenomenon, defining beauty hot spot brands as “a group of brands produced and nurtured in a particular country or region,” often showcasing or incorporating “aspects of the country’s culture, design or locally sourced ingredients into their products.”

The study highlighted that in the last few years these brands have become increasingly powerful as consumers “cultivate stronger regional identities, care more about authenticity, and supporting their own local economy and communities.”

“Overall, and most clearly among younger generations, there is a movement toward localism and authenticity as they look for brands that more closely align with their values,” Euromonitor’s research analyst Olivia Stelmaszczyk told WWD.

“Since Gen Z is especially focused on self-expression and authentic beauty presentations (shifting away from previously dominant and rigid stereotypes), the movement will likely stay in the forecast as these consumers continue to seek newness and authenticity in beauty,” she added.

The phenomenon of rising local brands in Italy reflects a burgeoning macro trend. Stelmaszczyk noted that overall “the global-to-local trend in beauty is still growing” and mentioned “C-beauty,” or Chinese beauty, as a new hot spot. One example is the brand Florasis, known locally as Hua Xizi, which has growing momentum among Chinese consumers for local labels, incorporating “Chinese aesthetics and traditional beauty rituals, as seen in its carving and packaging, allowing it to stand out and bring something new in a market where Western brands have dominated the premium segment.” It also uses local extracts, herbs and traditional ingredients, appealing to consumers not only on a cultural front, but also for its local wellness values, noted Stelmaszczyk.

Similarly, the Middle East is becoming a beauty hub thanks to brands revisiting heritage, homemade remedies and ingredients in a modern way. Examples mentioned by Euromonitor include skin care label Shiffa, inspired by Arab roots and featuring ingredients such as Iranian rose and Egyptian jasmine; the Hammamii brand, using ingredients like Arabica coffee, camel’s milk and Za’atar, and fragrance by Arcadia, evoking local traditions, such as burning Bakhoor to create at-home incense.

Indian beauty is spotlighting new Ayurvedic concepts. Scandinavian brands continue to promote well-being focusing on purity, simplicity and natural ingredients, while Australia’s laid-back lifestyle is translated in an unfussy approach to cosmetics and use of home-grown ingredients, such as papaya, pink clay and kakadu plum.

Brands in the U.S. are also looking to local treasures, like in the case of April Gargiulo, who leveraged her background in winemaking in Napa Valley to found the Vintner’s Daughter skin care brand.

So what is the distinctive trait of Italy? Variety.

The country’s regional divide is much more than bureaucratic, as each area comes with its peculiar and different natural landscape, climate, cultural background and even dialect. As a result, differences cemented through the years have generated variety, which ultimately translates into richness across every field. Think of the many architectural styles, different music genres and even types of pasta. Cosmetics is no exception.

An imaginary road trip across the country would start in the northwest, in the Aosta Valley, where the small company Alpiflora produces natural cosmetics based on medicinal herbs grown in the lands of Hône and Champorcher. These include the likes of edelweiss, arnica, thyme and sage, used in creams, body scrubs, essential oils and hair products, among others.

Moving to the Piedmont region, pomace of Barbera grapes from a vineyard in Monferrato are at the base of Iuva’s formulations. These byproducts of the wine-making process are repurposed into a skin care line in a process that also limits waste and promotes a positive impact on the environment.

A similar approach defines Penelope Skin, the brand Giorgia Palazzo founded this year in the Franciacorta wine-making area in the Lombardy region. The antioxidants extracted from grapes’ marcs are at the core of the range, in which the Grape Cream is the hero product.

Also hailing from Lombardy — home of what is best known as the Italian Cosmetic Valley for its dense concentration of beauty manufacturers — is Milanesi Skincare, which develops products protecting the skin from urban aggressors, such as stress, pollution, and UV and blue light.

With prices ranging from 35 euros to 200 euros, the offering is divided in four lines named after different districts of Milan, including Navigli, Brera, Montenapoleone and CityLife. Each line contains a specific element, such as saffron (the key ingredient in the city’s signature risotto) grown in a small field on the outskirts of Milan.

Milanesi Skincare’s bestseller is the Purifying Mask from the Navigli line, with a formula containing coffee produced in a historic roastery located in the heart of the district and targeting dark circles, tired eyes and first signs of aging.

Established right before the pandemic by Maria Antonella Marino, Milanesi Skincare already has European distribution. It also includes a professional skin care and hair care line sold in five-star hotels and spas, such as the Four Seasons; in gyms like Barry’s Bootcamp, as well as in a selection of salons in Europe, Latin America and United Arab Emirates.

Milanesi Skincare - Credit: Courtesy of Milanesi Skincare
Milanesi Skincare - Credit: Courtesy of Milanesi Skincare

Courtesy of Milanesi Skincare

In the Trentino-South Tyrol region, Eleonora Callovi and Ilaria Menapace instilled local staple ingredients such as Topaz apples and red grapes into their Reizia skin care brand launched last year. Each ingredient is locally harvested respecting the lunar phases, so plants can develop the highest concentration of active principles. The goal is to restore skin radiance through clean and natural formulations, as well as spiritual well-being. Prices range from 28 euros to 69 euros.

Reizia - Credit: Francesca Padovan/Courtesy of Reizia
Reizia - Credit: Francesca Padovan/Courtesy of Reizia

Francesca Padovan/Courtesy of Reizia

More than 900 types of alpine plants and herbs grow on the Altopiano di Asiago in the Veneto region, where HöbePergh has been rooted for more than 25 years. In its expansive catalogue, ranging from skin care to oral care, the brand also uses ingredients such as wild carrots, Camelina oil and different species of roses. With prices between 20 euros to 120 euros and distribution in Europe, China and Australia, HöbePergh explores new ways to combine natural ingredients, optimizing dosage and properties with the goal to mix sustainability and efficacy.

HöbePergh - Credit: Courtesy of HöbePergh
HöbePergh - Credit: Courtesy of HöbePergh

Courtesy of HöbePergh

A natural approach doesn’t exclude advanced scientific research. Friuli Venezia Giulia is the land of some of Italy’s most tech-savvy skin care companies, such as Bakel. Founded in 2016 by Francesca di Lenardo, vegan and clean brand Insìum also stands out for its antiaging mission pursued with a combination of high-tech biotechnological and natural ingredients.

For example, Neuroguard is a marine ingredient that claims to prevents aging by triggering collagen synthesis and increasing elastin synthesis, among other processes.

Unlike its competitors, Insìum doesn’t have an online store but is available in 150 niche perfumeries in countries such as Italy, Switzerland, Thailand, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and the U.K. It is also in luxury spas, such as Borgo Egnazia or the Punta Tragara hotel in Capri, in addition to collaborating with the Baglioni Hotels & Resorts chain.

Insìum - Credit: Courtesy of Insìum
Insìum - Credit: Courtesy of Insìum

Courtesy of Insìum

A scientific approach can be also found in Tuscany’s Borgo San Pietro, a former curative sanctuary for medieval pilgrims. In 2001, a Danish couple revamped and turned it into a luxury retreat housing also a farm and the laboratory for their Seed to Skin skin care line.

Here, owner and creative director Jeanette Thottrup and pharmacist and cosmetologist Anna Buonocore develop formulations based on sheep’s milk from the local farm and raw honey from bees buzzing over the 300-acre organically cultivated estate. Retailing for 59 euros to 259 euros, Seed to Skin products are distributed in 40 global locations, including Liberty in London and Le Bon Marché in Paris.

Seed to Skin - Credit: Courtesy of Seed to Skin
Seed to Skin - Credit: Courtesy of Seed to Skin

Courtesy of Seed to Skin

In the outskirts of Florence, Laboratori Hur has been developing a pioneering approach since the ‘80s, incorporating food extracts, such as lettuce, fennel, celery, basil, rosemary and chili pepper, in formulations. The company promotes custom enzymatic tests to evaluate the best skin care treatment for each consumer.

Over in the Emilia Romagna region, Oway with its authentic approach to sustainability and zero-km supply chain is giving local eco-pioneer Davines a run for its money. The Umbrian hills sprout with beauty labels leveraging local treasures. Beauty Thinkers works with olives, while Skin&Co. with black truffles. Founded in 2015 by Gabriel Balestra, the brand is best known for its premium line Truffle Therapy, ranging from cleansers and toners to rich creams and serums, as well as the Umbrian Apothecary series centered on local herb-based remedies.

The extract of Paccasassi del Conero, a plant growing in the Natural Park of Monte Conero in the Marche region and never before used in cosmetics, is at the core of dermocosmetics brand Conero Beauty launched by Daniele Aloi and Federico Patrizi in the pharmacy channel.

Parco1923 is also linked to a natural reserve, the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise, nestled among these three regions. The protected area inspired Paride Vitale and Ugo Maria Morosi to establish a brand starting from the creation of a fragrance evoking the place and combining Laburnum, beech and juniper berries, among others. The line expanded to include body care, home fragrances and merchandise, all emblazoned with the Parco1923 logo depicting a brown bear.

Parco1923 eau de toilette - Credit: Courtesy of Parco1923
Parco1923 eau de toilette - Credit: Courtesy of Parco1923

Courtesy of Parco1923

With Buffalo mozzarella being a staple of the Campania region’s cuisine, siblings Daniela and Pasquale Senatore couldn’t shy away from using Buffalo milk in the skin care brand Biancamore they launched in 2014. The highlight of the line is a body cream, which also contains hyaluronic acid and targets dry skin and sensitive areas, such as knees and elbows. Along with a distribution in Italy, Biancamore is also available at Eataly in New York.

Biancamore’s body cream. - Credit: Courtesy of Biancamore
Biancamore’s body cream. - Credit: Courtesy of Biancamore

Courtesy of Biancamore

The region has other local treasures, including the historic Carthusia brand in Capri and the Eau d’Italie label, linked to Positano’s iconic hotel Le Sirenuse. Both brands offer the opportunity to locals and tourists to take a piece of these dreamy escapes back home, in a trend that has resurged since the recovery of international travel.

Offering “Apulia in a bottle” is the mission of Essentia Puglia, too. The brand’s fragrances and cosmetics aim to evoke Mediterranean vibes through native ingredients such as olives, almond, fig and mint, all coming from the Salento area and the Itria Valley.

While in Basilicata formulations of the Balù label center on snail slime from local animals, the La Mia Casa Nel Vento brand hailing from the extreme southern tip of Calabria is all about jasmine and citrus notes, like the local star bergamot. Produced in small batches, the brand was launched in 2018 by Maria C. Martino, who wanted to honor her roots and childhood memories through the olfactory experience.

La Mia Casa Nel Vento - Credit: Courtesy of La Mia Casa Nel Vento
La Mia Casa Nel Vento - Credit: Courtesy of La Mia Casa Nel Vento

Courtesy of La Mia Casa Nel Vento

Sue Townsend established Ortigia Sicilia in 2016, taking Sicilian cosmetics around the world via multiple stand-alone stores in the region, as well as in Rome, Florence and London. The range of soaps, scents, creams, candles and even design objects includes formulations containing pomegranate, prickly pear and almond, to name a few. The perfumes are distilled from the flowers of Sicily by master perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi, while Townsend helms the creative direction of the highly decorative and distinctive packaging.

Launched by Agatha Relota Luczo and Kim Walls, Furtuna Skin pays tribute to the same land with a modern take, combining minimal aesthetics with formulas based on olive oil and byproducts harvested from the founders biodiverse land expanding for more than 865 acres.

Ortigia Sicilia - Credit: Courtesy of Ortigia Sicilia
Ortigia Sicilia - Credit: Courtesy of Ortigia Sicilia

Courtesy of Ortigia Sicilia

Moving to Italy’s other big island, Giovanni Pisu and André Baradat launched Soha Sardinia in 2015, after finding out that the renowned longevity of local citizens is also due to grapes, especially the local Cannonau variety that founders discovered to be three-times more concentrated in antiaging polyphenols than other varieties. They developed a double-extraction process of these polyphenols without chemicals or solvents, and made them a key ingredient of the brand, alongside Mediterranean seaweed, lemon extract and myrtle.

Botanical ingredients harvested in immaculate lands of the same island define In Aéras, the label Alice Ziccheddu founded with the aim of honoring ancient herbal rituals from Sardinia. Each of the brand’s three lines — Animanuda, Silentium and Visione — comes with a face cream, serum and body oil formulated with juniper, helichrysum, lavender and myrtle, to name a few ingredients.

Soha Sardinia - Credit: Courtesy of Soha Sardinia
Soha Sardinia - Credit: Courtesy of Soha Sardinia

Courtesy of Soha Sardinia

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